More bias here, says new Peterson poll

January 4, 2004 

Bay Area and Southern California residents are less likely than those in Stanislaus County to have decided already that Scott Peterson is guilty of murder, according to a new survey.

The poll results provide ammunition for moving Peterson's trial and insight on where it could go. Its results counter the notion that moving the trial is pointless because pervasive publicity has created near-uniform prejudice against Peterson statewide.

"The theory that it's equal everywhere is wrong," said Stephen Schoenthaler, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Stanislaus.

Schoenthaler's new survey contradicts prosecution surveys that found Stanislaus County jurors' attitudes "are no different" from other jurors, according to documents filed in court Friday.

In the prosecution surveys, "no evidence was found consistent with the claim that moving the trial away from Stanislaus would result in Peterson receiving a more fair trial," according to the documents.

"When there has been this much publicity, there is no point in a change of venue," Senior Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris wrote.

But Schoenthaler's new survey of 10 California counties indicates that bias against Peterson is significantly higher in and near Modesto, but lower -- and relatively similar -- in the Bay Area and Southern California.

That raises the possibility the trial could be moved to Santa Clara or Alameda counties, which would be cheaper and less inconvenient for witnesses than a Southern California move, legal observers said.

Schoenthaler's latest survey is little more than an academic exercise unless prosecutors or Peterson's defense try to introduce it in court and the results are deemed reliable.

Schoenthaler released the results as attorneys prepare to spar over a defense request to move Peterson's trial because of massive publicity. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

Schoenthaler's survey, conducted in late November and early December, questioned 1,175 prospective jurors. It probed California's eight largest counties, split between north and south, plus Stanislaus County and its neighbor to the north, San Joaquin County.

Judge Al Girolami had expressed interest in busing jurors from that county to Modesto, a move that would save costs but appears unlikely.

More than 96 percent of people Schoenthaler surveyed in each county had heard of the case, but there were "significant differences" in depths of knowledge, opinions about guilt and belief about whether Peterson should receive the death penalty, Schoenthaler wrote.

For example, nearly 69 percent of Stanislaus County respondents said they've decided Peterson is guilty, compared with 45 percent of people polled in Los Angeles County.

That's in stark contrast to the prosecution surveys by Ebbe Ebbessen, a psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego.

"In my survey only 9 percent said they knew enough to say Scott was guilty," Ebbessen wrote in documents filed in Stanislaus County Superior Court. "Clearly either time heals all wounds, the media coverage of the case has changed or the responses one obtains depend on how the question is framed."

Ebbessen's two polls each surveyed 606 potential jurors in Stanislaus, Sacramento and Los Angeles counties during the last two weeks of December.

The surveys found "no statistically significant differences" across counties in knowledge of the case, people's ability to set aside what they had heard, and whether people knew enough about the case to form an opinion on Peterson's guilt.

Poll: Bias in Stanislaus County

The 31-year-old fertilizer salesman is charged with murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

But according to the new Schoenthaler poll, more than 70 percent of Stanislaus County residents have formed an opinion in the case, compared with 47 percent in Los Angeles and 51.8 percent in Santa Clara County.

The broad survey also showed more bias in Stanislaus County than indicated in previous polls.

Local respondents who said Peterson is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or probably guilty measured nearly 69 percent, compared with 59 percent in a survey Schoenthaler oversaw in May. That survey came before prosecutors laid out part of their case during Peterson's 12-day preliminary hearing that concluded in November.

A survey commissioned by Peterson's camp in early December indicated that 38 percent of potential Stanislaus County jurors had decided Peterson was guilty.

According to Schoenthaler's results, people in Stanislaus County appear to have more polarized views. While more people think Peterson is guilty here than elsewhere, the concentration of people who think he is innocent also is higher here.

Only 44.6 percent of Stanislaus County residents said they could set aside their opinions of Peterson's guilt if pressed into jury service. That compares with 63 percent in Orange County and 62 percent in Los Angeles.

San Diego County respondents appeared more hostile to their native son -- Scott Peterson was raised there -- than those elsewhere in Southern California.

For example, 41 percent of San Diego respondents said he should get the death penalty if convicted, compared with 36 percent in Orange County and 37 percent in Los Angeles County.

More stories in San Diego paper

News coverage could account for some of the disparity. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times and Riverside Press Enterprise respectively published 94 and four articles on the Peterson case, compared with 112 in the San Diego Union Tribune.

In conducting the new poll, Schoenthaler oversaw 65 graduate and undergraduate students who randomly interviewed people by telephone. They interviewed those who said they were at least 18 years old and were registered to vote or had valid driver's licenses in an effort to identify jury-eligible people. The number of residents surveyed in each county ranged from 114 to 122.

San Francisco Assistant District Attorney James Hammer said the small sample size for each county and the poll's margin of error of 9 percentage points -- the range in which the results fluctuate -- raises questions about whether it would pass legal muster.

"I've never seen polling like this admitted into court with an error rate of 9 percent," Hammer said.

Schoenthaler said, "asking the right questions is more important than sample size."

Schoenthaler said his efforts were partially motivated by saving taxpayer money. A Bay Area trial, within a day's commute of Modesto, would save on airfare and hotel stays, compared with a Southern California move, he said.

And the cost of moving the trial pales in comparison with that of retrying the case if a higher court overturns the verdict, he added.

That could happen if Girolami refuses to move proceedings and a higher court later disagrees with that decision.

"Certainly the safest course in this kind of situation for the prosecution, if they're faced with the possibility of reversal, is to agree to a change of venue," said Hammer, the San Francisco prosecutor.

He prosecuted the 2002 dog-mauling murder trial and did not oppose moving the case from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

"Getting a conviction and having it overturned doesn't do anybody any good," Hammer said. "You put the victims through two trials, it costs more money, all kinds of things. It's just a bad idea."

It cost San Francisco Superior Court $354,800 to move the trial, officials said. Prosecutors spent $220,000 because of the move to Los Angeles, said Teresa Serata, chief financial officer for the San Francisco district attorney's office.

Those costs could increase dramatically for the Peterson trial, which prosecutors have estimated could take six months. And as a death penalty case, it could include two phases: one on guilt or innocence, the other on whether Peterson should receive the death penalty if convicted.

Prosecutors want to keep the trial in Modesto, saying the bulk of local jurors can set aside opinions in the case, the defense hasn't shown Peterson could get a fairer trial elsewhere and there is nowhere else to go, because of blanket publicity.

Schoenthaler said his study disagrees. "There are significant differences between the 10 counties," he wrote in the summary.

Geragos: SJ media similar

Mark Geragos, who is representing Peterson, has repeatedly suggested he would like to move the trial to Los Angeles, where his law firm has its headquarters.

Girolami in November instructed both sides to consider busing jurors from San Joaquin County, which would cost significantly less than moving the trial.

But such a move would require defense approval, which is not forthcoming, Geragos wrote in court documents filed in December. He argued that San Joaquin County jurors are exposed to similar media as Stanislaus jurors.

Schoenthaler's new survey appears to bolster that theory. Of 120 San Joaquin respondents, 27.5 percent said Peterson is undoubtedly guilty -- the highest mark of any county except for Stanislaus (30.6 percent).

Hammer said defense survey information so far submitted to the court -- a 39 percent prejudgment rate in Stanislaus County and no data for an alternate county -- did not make a convincing case to move the trial.

"I think the judge has plenty of ammunition to deny this motion," Hammer said. "In the end, all you need are 12 jurors."

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

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


Peterson Survey

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