DA seeks venue survey

August 9, 2003 

Prosecutors on Friday asked a judge for permission to survey prospective jurors on whether Scott Peterson can get a fair trial in Stanislaus County.

Prosecutors need the survey because they expect Peterson's lawyers to try to move the trial to another county, according to documents filed Friday with Superior Court Judge Al Girolami.

Because of extensive national and local media attention to the murder case against Peterson, defense attorney Mark Geragos has said he will ask for the trial to be moved.

Peterson, 30, is charged with murder in the deaths of his wife, Laci, and the couple's unborn son. Laci Peterson, 27, was nearly eight months pregnant when she was reported missing on Christmas Eve.

If Peterson is convicted, he could face the death penalty. He has pleaded innocent.

The district attorney's office has hired Ebbe Ebbesen, a psychology professor from the University of California at San Diego, to survey public opinion. He has been a change-of-venue consultant for prosecutors in 45 cases in California since 1985, according to his résumé.

In Stanislaus County, he worked with the district attorney's office in the cases of Michael Roy Larwick in 2000 and Brian David Johnsen in 1994. Both cases drew intense local publicity.

Larwick, who was tried for shooting a police officer, was for a time suspected in the deaths of a woman and two teen-age girls who had been sightseeing at Yosemite National Park.

The murders of Carole Sund, her daughter Julie and their friend Silvina Pelosso drew national attention. Motel handyman Cary Stayner later was convicted of the murders.

Johnsen's case -- the bludgeoning and stabbing death of a 74-year-old woman in Modesto -- also drew public attention.

Neither case was moved out of Stanislaus County, however, because judges found no proof that it was impossible to have a fair trial. Larwick was convicted and sentenced to 120 years in prison. Johnsen was convicted and sentenced to death.

Ebbesen hopes to use written questionnaires to study attitudes about the Peterson case, the prosecution's court papers say. The forms would be distributed at the courthouse to people arriving for jury duty.

The district attorney's legal papers ask that Ebbesen be allowed to survey people in two other counties, too, to see if attitudes there are the same.

Bee staff writer Blair Craddock can be reached at 578-2385 or bcraddock@modbee.com.

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