Peterson gets delay

September 3, 2003 

A judge on Tuesday delayed Scott Peterson's preliminary hearing until Oct. 20 to give his lawyers more time to prepare.

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami granted the delay after lead defense attorney Mark Geragos said he had a Los Angeles trial that presented a scheduling conflict. The defense also asked for more time to sift through thousands of new documents it received from prosecutors last week.

Peterson's defense also served notice Tuesday that it will try to prevent prosecutors from introducing evidence at trial regarding tracker dogs, a hypnotized witness, an electronic tracking device and DNA testing.

The idea presumably is to remove critical building blocks that support a prosecution case built largely on circumstantial evidence, some observers said.

Peterson, 30, is accused of murdering his wife, Laci, and unborn son, Conner. He faces the death penalty if convicted.

The bodies of mother and son were recovered in April along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. Authorities arrested Peterson days later.

The case has captured attention across the nation and beyond, fueled in part by rumor and speculation.

A court-imposed gag order has prevented lawyers on both sides from sharing evidence with the public. Many details are expected to emerge at the preliminary hearing, which had been scheduled to start Tuesday.

Peterson, wearing a dark suit, spoke only briefly Tuesday, responding "I do, your honor" at one point when Girolami asked if he agreed to postpone the preliminary hearing a second time.

Girolami, who previously proclaimed that the Sept. 9 court date was "set in stone," said Tuesday, "It will be highly unlikely that it will be continued again."

Peterson's attorneys said they would ask Girolami to bar prosecutors from presenting evidence on:

Cadaver and scent-tracking dogs. Authorities had used specialized dogs soon after Laci Peterson, 27, was reported missing on Christmas Eve.

Hypnosis. A witness living in the Petersons' La Loma-area neighborhood who may have resembled the pregnant Laci Peterson around Christmas was interviewed by authorities while under hypnosis.

GPS devices. Authorities apparently placed global positioning system equipment in Scott Peterson's truck, presumably to keep track of him during the four-month investigation leading to his arrest.

Mitochondrial DNA. Though Geragos never specifically referred to this fourth area of evidence, Senior Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris revealed it during the hearing.

"The (defense) hope is they pick apart here and pick apart there," said San Francisco Assistant District Attorney James Hammer. "If they can do enough of that, the prosecution's case can start to weaken."

Where DNA found is key

Forensics experts said mitochondrial DNA typically is used to identify bodies or to suggest that someone was in a location of significance.

Dr. Michael Baden, a famed New York forensic pathologist, speculated that prosecutors "are using it to show that Laci's DNA was in a place it shouldn't have been, or that she wouldn't have been until after she died."

Finding her hair in the Peterson's Covena Avenue home or in her husband's truck, for instance, probably would not have much value, Baden said. But eyebrows might be raised if her DNA was found in her husband's fishing boat, which he purchased shortly before her death, Baden said.

A source said in May that police found a pair of pliers in Peterson's boat. Hair that could have been Laci's was found in the pliers, the source said.

Scott Peterson told authorities he went fishing in his 14-foot aluminum boat the day his wife went missing. The bodies were recovered within miles of where Peterson said he fished.

Dr. Harry J. Bonnell, an independent forensic pathologist in San Diego, suspected Geragos is jockeying for position.

"Mitochondrial DNA is not going to tell you how old a person was or if they were born alive," Bonnell said. "(Lawyers) are just sparring, jerking each other around."

Prosecutors confirmed that they intend to introduce evidence in the preliminary hearing relating to the hypnotized woman, identified as Kristen Dempewolf, tracker dogs and a GPS tracking device.

Authorities have said they used a GPS device in one of Peterson's vehicles. The defense contends the device did not work properly.

Dempewolf, 33, could be used to counter witnesses who contend they saw Laci Peterson after her husband said he left to go fishing.

But California law lays out strict conditions for allowing testimony from hypnotized witnesses in a criminal case. For example, testimony must be limited to matters the witness recalled and related prior to the hypnosis, and the substance of the pre-hypnotic memory must be preserved in written, audiotape or videotape form before the hypnosis.

State law also requires the hypnosis be performed by a licensed professional experienced in hypnosis, such as a doctor, and not be done in the presence of law enforcement, the prosecution or the defense.

According to Geragos, Dempewolf was under hypnosis when questioned. The session was videotaped. The lead detective reportedly didn't learn about the hypnosis until July.

"The judge will look very carefully at whether the police and prosecutors followed (criteria) properly," Hammer said.

Introducing evidence from scent-tracking dogs is more common, legal observers said.

"Evidence is evidence, regardless of whether it's discovered by a dog or human being," said Terry Fleck, a dog handler who has contracted with various Tahoe-area law enforcement agencies for 20 years.

Fleck said he has testified in homicide, robbery, kidnap and other cases. In some, the defense sought to keep tracking-dog information out. They never succeeded, Fleck said.

"That's a common ploy from a defense standpoint, to suppress evidence," he said. "Typically the dog-scent evidence is cor-roborated by other physical evidence."

Dogs used with search teams

Teams of searchers and dogs looked for Laci Peterson in the area around her Covena Avenue house and East La Loma Park in the days and weeks after her disappearance.

On Dec. 26, a specially trained bloodhound from the Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department, Merlin, indicated to its handler that Laci Peterson left her home in a vehicle, not on foot.

The defense specifically wants information about Merlin and handler Cindee Valentin, a deputy with the Contra Costa County Emergency Services Search and Rescue Unit, a division of the sheriff's department.

Prosecutors on Friday turned over thousands of pages of documents to the defense camp, co-defense counsel Kirk McAllister said.

The defense also wants to examine at least 31 items picked up from the environs of the East Bay near the bodies.

Also, Geragos is representing defendants in two other Los Angeles cases that he expects to start any day, he said.

Geragos said he expects Peterson's preliminary hearing to take longer than previously thought because his attempts to block the prosecution's evidence might be time-consuming. Girolami will consider those requests Oct. 20.

Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, attended Tuesday's hearing but did not speak with reporters.

Scott Peterson's mother, Jackie, maintained outside the courthouse Tuesday that her son is innocent.

"It's terrible," Jackie Peterson said. "I'm watching him rot in jail. I'm watching him die from the inside out."

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

Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or jcote@modbee.com.

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