Orange County added to list of possible Peterson venues

January 14, 2004 

Three Bay Area counties could handle Scott Peterson's double-murder case, administrators of California's court system said Tuesday. Officials also added a fourth possibility: Orange County in Southern California.

The Administrative Office of the Courts, which assists trial courts when a change of venue is ordered, said Alameda, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Orange counties would not be unduly burdened if they took the case.

Defense attorney Mark Geragos is likely to argue in favor of Orange County, because he previously noted that his preferred location is "Los Angeles, Los Angeles, Los Angeles," where his office is located. Los Angeles County is adjacent to Orange County. Geragos did not return calls Tuesday.

The decision rests in the hands of Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami. The judge is scheduled to listen to arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys on Tuesday, then make his selection.

"The decision is ultimately his," Superior Court Executive Officer Michael Tozzi said Tuesday.

Peterson is charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of his wife, Laci, and unborn son.

Peterson has been held without bail since his arrest in April. His trial is set to start on Jan. 26, but legal observers expect delays.

Girolami last week said the trial must move to a larger metropolitan area within driving distance of Modesto and with a major airport, because an enormous amount of pretrial publicity rules out a fair trial in Modesto.

Girolami suggested Alameda, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

The judge ruled out courts in San Francisco, San Joaquin, Sacramento and Fresno counties. That means that the court cannot bus jurors in from one of those counties, as it has done in some previous high-profile trials.

The Administrative Office of the Courts -- which surveyed courts to see if they have suitable space for a lengthy trial that will draw lots of media and require extra security -- added Orange County to the list of possible locations.

Girolami could travel with case

Girolami could go to the new location with the case; if he decides not to, a judge in the new location could take over or state court administrators could appoint a retired judge to preside over Scott Peterson's trial.

Stanislaus County would have to pay for court clerks, stenographers and security, as well as housing for Peterson.

Officials hope the state reimburses the county for the extraordinary costs of Peterson's investigation and trial. Gov. Schwarzenegger asked lawmakers to pay for extra costs beyond salaries and normal expenses.

Thomas Hansen, presiding judge of Santa Clara County Superior Court, said moving a trial is a major undertaking that cannot be completed in a few weeks.

He said courts must accept such cases, and they willingly do so, but noted that his two largest courtrooms are booked with lengthy trials in the coming months.

"It's a responsibility," Hansen said. "We're a statewide court system."

Alan Slater, chief executive officer of Orange County Superior Court, said judges and employees in his courthouse have learned to roll with the punches that high-profile cases bring.

He said his court could easily make room for Peterson and the media circus that follows him.

"It's something we're pretty used to," Slater said. Alameda court officials referred calls to the state administrative office; representatives of San Mateo County did not return calls for comment.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at 578-2338 or sherendeen@modbee.com.

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