Prosecution seeks Peterson pollsters

January 10, 2004 

Prosecutors announced Friday that they want to speak with unidentified university students who said they fabricated telephone survey data on the Scott Peterson double-murder case.

The phony polls played a role in a judge's decision Thursday to move Peterson's capital murder trial out of Modesto.

Also Friday:

  • California State University, Stanislaus, President Marvalene Hughes issued a statement affirming an official inquiry and condemning "scientific misconduct and academic dishonesty."

  • Criminology Professor Stephen Schoenthaler, who disputed his students' claims Thursday, said Friday that he needs more information to determine whether they are true.

    He declined an offer first extended Thursday by The Bee to call phone numbers listed on the surveys in question, to verify whether the calls were placed. The professor said university officials wanted the same information.

  • Schoenthaler confirmed that he did not alert university officials in advance that the students would be conducting the survey -- as required by federal mandate.

  • A classmate of the seven who said they submitted phony survey results came forward to say she completed the assignment without cheating, and another did the same but requested anonymity.

  • A Bee employee who attends the university said a friend, desperate to find survey respondents, solicited survey answers from her. Calling friends or family violates scientific research ethics.

  • Three research experts -- including two with extensive experience in criminal case surveys -- blamed the Peterson survey scandal on Schoenthaler's supervision.

    The 1,175-person survey suggested that more jurors without bias could be found in the Bay Area and Southern California than in Stanislaus County. Peterson's Los Angeles attorney, Mark Geragos, submitted the poll as an official exhibit and Judge Al Girolami cited it when explaining his decision to move the trial.

    The bodies of Laci Peterson and her son, Conner, were recovered in April less than three miles from where Scott Peterson said he fished alone Dec. 24, 2002. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty in the case which, Girolami said, likely will move to a Bay Area county.

    Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold indicated Friday that his office might ask Girolami to reconsider the move if the students' phony-survey claims prove true.

    "Were are interested in not seeing anything false put before the court," Goold said.

    His office issued a news release asking students who falsified data to come forward.

    But Professor Michael Vitiello of Sacramento's McGeorge School of Law suggested that the students first "talk to competent legal counsel so they understand what the legal possibilities are."

    All of the students who said they falsified data are criminal justice seniors. Many hope to graduate in the spring and search for jobs in law enforcement, parole or probation -- all of which would require background checks that could turn up allegations of academic dishonesty.

    They also might face discipline from the university, with punishment ranging from a warning to expulsion.

    "Some kids are willing to talk to a reporter," Vitiello said, "but it's another huge step to come forward now (to prosecutors)."

    Goold, who does some hiring at the Stanislaus County district attorney's office, said he would evaluate such students on a case-by-case basis.

    "If you have an interest in working in criminal justice, I think honesty (in admitting a mistake) is probably the biggest thing you can put out there," Goold said.

    Schoenthaler is a senior member of the university's 24-instructor sociology and criminal justice department, one of the school's largest. He became a professor in 1990 and has served as a court expert in potential jury surveys, including the high-profile trial of the man who murdered 12-year-old Polly Klaas.

    Asked Friday if he continues to discount the students' phony-data claims, Schoenthaler said: "I need to know more than I know now."

    Previously, the professor confirmed that he did not submit his survey plans to the university's Institutional Review Board, saying his polls are exempt. They haven't been subject to review since 1995 because respondents aren't quizzed on their own behavior or subjected to embarrassment, Schoenthaler said.

    But university Vice Provost Diana Demetrulias said Thursday that federal rules require any data collection done by "human research subjects" -- students -- to get approval.

    Professor Phyllis Gerstenfeld, the department's criminal justice coordinator, said surveys exempted from federal oversight still must be cleared by the review board.

    One of the seven unidentified students said Friday, "I'm really disappointed in the school. They never said how Dr. Schoenthaler didn't have permission to do this and they seemed more upset with the students. It wasn't an approved assignment."

    A self-described spokesperson for the unidentified students said Friday that they are worried about backlash for their whistle-blowing, but continue to stand behind the decision.

    Several students said Thursday they manufactured data because they were short on time and money. They said they didn't realize the poll could figure in a life-and-death decision.

    The Center for Academic Integrity, a consortium of 200 colleges and universities headquartered at Duke University, found that 75 percent of undergraduate students cheat at least once.

    Another study cited by the center showed that 80 percent of high-achieving high school students have cheated, that they think cheating is commonplace and don't consider it a serious transgression.

    Diane Waryold, the center's executive director, said Friday: "I don't think data collection has ever been connected to something as high-profile as this (Peterson issue)."

    Waryold said students who come clean about dishonesty cite reasons similar to those

    given by the Stanislaus students -- time constraints.

    "Dishonesty, unfortunately, is the reason we're in business," Waryold said. "The problem with research methodology and self-reported data is that you're taking chances that people are telling the truth."

    Amy Singer, founder and president of Florida-based Trial Consultants Inc., said sending students home to make survey calls on their own dime is "lunacy." Her trained, paid pollsters work from a room with phone banks using computers programmed for random dialing.

    Also, poll supervisors should call back 10 percent to 20 percent of respondents to verify results, she said.

    "The real problem is supervision and controls," agreed Edward J. Bronson, a jury consultant who worked on the Oklahoma City bombing and San Francisco dog-mauling trials, both of which were moved.

    His student poll-takers at California State University, Chico -- whose surveys are overseen by another professor -- use university phone banks and know their results will be subjected to call-backs.

    "Professional people with ethical standards do control (surveys)," Bronson said. "It's a slender reed, to put a defendant's life at stake."

    McGeorge's Vitiello, who also relies on student research assistants, said, "You trust them. You've got to."

    Two of Schoenthaler's survey-takers said his trust in them was well-placed.

    "All of mine (surveys) were legitimate," said Ronda Swenson, a 29-year-old criminal defense paralegal who took the professor's class. She said Schoen-thaler made it clear from the first that they would be required to help with the survey.

    "When you get into the work force, there are certain things you have to do whether you want to or not," Swenson said.

    Ana Cortez, a Bee newsroom clerk and Stanislaus State senior, said a friend taking

    Schoenthaler's class called her unlisted number to solicit answers for the survey. The friend said survey results were due the next day, and he didn't know how he would accomplish the task.

    As for Schoenthaler, Swenson said, "This man takes his work to heart and is very passionate about what he does."

    A 22-year-old student who asked not to be identified said she also completed the work honestly.

    "Life sucks, but hey, who said school was supposed to be easy?" she said. "It's supposed to be a learning process."

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


    COMING SUNDAY

    As local lawmakers try to get the state to help pay for the Peterson case, some of their colleagues want to tighten guidelines for reimbursing counties for high-profile murder cases.

  • Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

    Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service