Defense wants judge taken off Peterson case

June 18, 2003 

Scott Peterson's lawyers and prosecutors want to kick out a judge who ruled against keeping search warrants secret in the double-murder case, according to court documents Peterson's camp filed Tuesday.

The Fifth District Court of Appeals in Fresno ordered prosecutors and media lawyers to file written replies within one week.

Eight search warrants issued before his arrest might lay out much of authorities' case against Peterson, who has pleaded not guilty to killing his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner.

Media lawyers had scored a small victory Thursday when Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Roger M. Beauchesne agreed to make the warrants public. But he delayed the release until July 8, giving attorneys on either side time to appeal.

That's what happened Tuesday, when Peterson's lead counsel, Mark Geragos of Los Angeles, asked the Fresno court to remove Beauchesne and reverse his decision.

Otherwise, a "media firestorm of misinformation will result," Geragos wrote, predicting "rumors and gossip will be rehashed immediately, incessantly and without recourse to Mr. Peterson receiving a fair trial."

"Both sides agree that the search warrants should remain under seal and that Judge Beauchesne must be removed from this matter," Geragos continued. He wrote that "Judge Beauchesne's prejudice against Mr. Peterson has become evident."

Senior Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris agreed with the idea of removing Beauchesne in a conversation with Geragos on Thursday, Geragos wrote.

Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold refused to confirm that Tuesday, saying, "We're going to file our own paperwork, and our position will be set out in our paperwork."

He cited a gag order issued by Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami preventing lawyers, investigators and witnesses from talking about the high-profile case.

Girolami should handle all matters in the case, Geragos wrote. Girolami has been handling the lion's share, including issues regarding autopsy reports, wiretaps and an arrest warrant affidavit -- all of which he sealed from public view.

Michael Vitiello, a McGeorge School of Law professor in Sacramento, said Geragos might want to keep the search warrants because they could contain information damaging to his client.

"(Geragos) is doing an effective job of trying to create some reasonable doubt in the public's mind," Vitiello said, noting rumors regarding satanic cults and mystery witnesses.

Prosecutors could be going along, Vitiello said, because limiting publicity could improve chances at holding a trial locally. Otherwise, it might have to be moved to another county.

"If I'm the prosector, I definitely want to try the case at home," Vitiello said, "because I know how to talk to my own people, and there is stronger passion in my hometown."

James Chadwick, a Palo Alto media attorney, noted that Geragos opposed the broader gag order but wants to keep the search warrants sealed.

"They claim the need to defend Mr. Peterson's position and set the record straight," Chadwick said. "But the public has a much more profound interest in knowing what the facts are than just hearing defense counsel's spin on the facts.

"This is not just about disclosure of information that is favorable to the prosecution," continued Chadwick, who has represented the San Jose Mercury-News and the Contra Costa Times in an effort to make Peterson documents public. "(Geragos) has cast some aspersions on the investigation. It may be that there is some justification, it may be there is not. In either case, the public ought to assess whether the investigation has been handled appropriately."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.

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