Pollster told to be in court

January 15, 2004 

A judge Wednesday ordered a university professor at the center of a survey scandal to appear at accused killer Scott Peterson's next court date.

California State University, Stanislaus, Professor Stephen Schoenthaler attended Wednesday's hearing with his lawyer after receiving a Peterson prosecution subpoena.

Wednesday, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Marie Silveira denied a defense motion to dismiss the charges against Peterson. Peterson is set to return to court Tuesday, when Judge Al Girolami is to select a location for his double-murder trial.

Schoenthaler's lawyer, Ernie Spokes of Modesto, refused to immediately give authorities documents related to the survey. He cited student confidentiality laws and a desire not to interfere with a university investigation.

"There are two sides to every story," Schoenthaler said after Wednesday's hearing. Spokes directed him not to elaborate, saying, "Now is not the time."

Schoenthaler oversaw a 10-county, 1,175-person survey conducted by about 65 criminal justice students in November and December. Nine have said they fabricated some or all answers to the survey, which measured bias against Peterson, because they were short on time and money for lengthy, long-distance telephone calls.

Just before the revelation, Girolami had cited Schoenthaler's survey in a decision to move the double-murder trial from Modesto. However, Girolami made clear that the main reason for moving was massive publicity.

Prosecutors, hinting at a request for reconsideration on the change-of-venue ruling, said Wednesday that they need a class list to interview the unidentified students.

Defense attorney Mark Geragos speculated that a classmate who apparently is an intern in the district attorney's office spurred the students' claims that they faked the results. He did not identify the student.

Also appearing in court Wednesday were Stanislaus State Vice Provost Diana Demetrulias, who carried a plastic crate filled with files, and university attorney Karen Carr. Silveira said, "Certainly this is an important issue," and ordered them to return Tuesday as well.

Investigation could take months

After the hearing, Carr said the survey fiasco should not affect the Turlock university's credibility. The university is conducting an investigation that could take months, university President Marvalene Hughes said Tuesday.

"(Schoenthaler) has given us dedicated service in the past," Carr said after the hearing.

Spokes and Geragos said prosecutors abused their subpoena power by requiring Schoenthaler to attend Wednesday's hearing, which had nothing to do with his survey.

Prosecutors acknowledged that Girolami is the proper judge to consider ordering Schoenthaler to turn documents over to authorities. But Girolami has been on vacation and inaccessible, prosecutor Dave Harris said.

Spokes said Schoenthaler will comply with such an order if Girolami hands it down Tuesday.

A well-placed source said Professor Paul O'Brien, chairman of Schoenthaler's department at the university, received a subpoena and gave some documents to authorities Tuesday.

Weeks ago, while asking for a change of venue, Geragos had cited a bias survey conducted by his own expert, Paul J. Strand, a university dean in San Diego. That survey indicated that 38 percent of 300 respondents in Stanislaus County had prejudged Peterson.

After The Bee published Schoenthaler's 10-county survey Jan. 4, Geragos submitted the survey as an attachment to a court document. The survey suggested that 69 percent of 122 Stanislaus County respondents had already decided Peterson's guilt.

Schoenthaler testified last week that he wasn't paid for the survey but produced it as a public service.

Asked after Wednesday's hearing if he regretted emphasizing Schoenthaler's survey, Geragos said, "If I'm not mistaken, Schoenthaler's was an independent survey."

The professor has taken heat from professional pollsters and a national association who railed on surveys done without adequate training, supervision and compensation for surveyors' expenses. Also, Schoenthaler should have tried to verify some surveys by recontacting people who provided answers, experts said.

Attorney: Blame the students

Spokes, calling his client "well regarded in the community for his work," attempted to deflect blame toward students.

Spokes said Schoenthaler invited students to submit written reimbursement requests. Some of the students said he initially insisted that dozens of long- distance calls are reasonable costs for a university education, and that he suggested getting phone cards or using pay phones.

Some students who said they conducted a number of valid, 39-question surveys said each required about 20 minutes to conduct. Schoenthaler required students to submit 20 surveys, including 18 from counties outside Stanislaus.

But Spokes said the surveys should have lasted only eight minutes each, on average.

Also, time pressures between the Nov. 18 end of the Peterson preliminary hearing and last week's change-of-venue hearing left Schoenthaler little time to attempt verifying the students' data, Spokes said. The professor has been making callbacks since the students came forward last week, Spokes said, but refused to say what his client has found.

Spokes said students guilty of academic fraud should get "a swift boot out the door."

His client "is terribly devastated that students would embarrass him, this university and the entire polling industry," Spokes said.

Geragos, Spokes and Schoenthaler initially served as commentators on the Peterson case before becoming involved in it.

As a television pundit, Geragos appeared for months on national cable news talk shows before Peterson hired him in May. Spokes and Schoenthaler provided comment to The Bee and broadcast media.

Spokes said he had hired Schoenthaler to conduct two change-of-venue surveys for previous clients charged with murders; neither trial was moved.

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

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