Trial site on docket; if it moves, costs climb

January 8, 2004 

The cost to move a high-profile trial -- which can be exorbitant -- isn't supposed to enter a judge's mind when he or she makes the big decision.

But there is no way around this fact: It's expensive.

And inconvenient.

"The expense just builds and builds," said Thomas Testa, a San Joaquin County prosecutor who handled two multiple-murder trials moved to Santa Clara County.

In many cases, the extra costs amount to several hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And the Peterson proceeding isn't a run-of-the-mill case. The preliminary hearing alone stretched across three weeks, and the trial is expected to last six months.

Judge Al Girolami today is set to hear arguments from both sides over Peterson's request to move the much-anticipated trial. It is scheduled to begin Jan. 26 but could be postponed, particularly if Girolami says a fair trial in Modesto is unlikely.

Peterson, 31, is charged in the slayings of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner. Prosecutors seek the death penalty.

Costs of moving proceedings can stack up quickly -- for everyone involved.

"Little things you don't think about: paper clips, fax machines, a courier service, socks," Testa said. "You've got to orchestrate things that now are on automatic pilot. One night I was driving around in the rain at 11:30, getting lost, looking for a

Magic Marker for an exhibit for the next day."

Aside from attorneys, trials require judges, clerks, bailiffs and stenographers, as well as witnesses, including experts who might need to fly in from anywhere in the United States.

And, everyone will need lodging and meals, in addition to transportation.

And that doesn't count the burden on friends and family of the victims, the accused and others connected to the trial.

Most costs are picked up by the county where the crime allegedly was committed, or by state coffers.

"The sending county pays the costs incurred by the receiving county," explained Lynn Holton, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts. That division of the California Judicial Council suggests appropriate locations to judges looking to move a trial.

Recommendations take as little as two weeks. The judge makes the final selection, based sometimes on a city's ability to handle an influx of court personnel, witnesses and media.

The Administrative Office of the Courts doesn't keep tabulations on change-of-venue costs for previous cases, Holton said. But her office figures the minimum at more than $27,000 per month for a few of the easiest things to calculate -- salaries for a judge, clerk, bailiff and stenographer. All the rest is extra.

But even that base figure can vary widely. The judge's salary, for example, doesn't enter the equation if he or she opts to go with the trial -- saving some money. On the other hand, many trials require a half-dozen bailiffs, particularly if the "new" county uses a metal detector at courthouse entrances.

"The big cost is security," Holton said.

Santa Clara courts billed Son-oma County about $120,000 per month to hold the trial of Richard Allen Davis, who killed 12-year-old Polly Klaas, according to the San Francisco Exam-iner. The trial required 13 people devoted to security.

Another money eater is travel, said Edward J. Bronson, a jury consultant who worked on the Oklahoma City bombing and San Francisco dog mauling trials, both of which moved.

"A lot depends on how many witnesses there are and where they're coming from," he said.

A court document filed in the Peterson case this week indicates 400 people on prosecutors' potential witness list, although some legal experts expect only a fraction to be called to the stand.

"The prosecution conveni-ently listed the witnesses' locales, so as to further mislead the court with phantom costs," Mark Geragos, Peterson's Los Angeles attorney, charged in court documents filed by the defense.

A state trial-subsidy fund has helped counties bear costs of cases such as Peterson's. But legislators last year refused to pony up before a trial starts, and the fund could be vulnerable to cost-cutting.

The trials of O.J. Simpson and Charles Ng respectively cost $9 million and $19 million.

The Peterson trial, according to early estimates, could run more than $1 million. Moving would cost more.

Geragos says unbiased jurors can't be found in Stanislaus County or valley counties -- the main factor in deciding whether to move. Prosecutors disagree.

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

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