Peterson case finds court

January 21, 2004 

Scott Peterson's double-murder trial is going to San Mateo County, and a new judge is likely to take over.

After ordering the move to the Bay Area, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami said Tuesday that he would prefer not to accompany the case.

San Mateo County's presiding judge later said the trial will be in Redwood City, the county seat. The city of 75,000 is on the San Francisco Peninsula, about 90 miles west of Modesto.

The presiding judge also said San Mateo County could provide a judge, if necessary.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George is scheduled to announce today whom he will assign to the case, according to a statement from the state Administrative Office of the Courts. The statement came after Girolami's announcement, during a hearing in his court, that the case would move to San Mateo County.

Also during the hearing, Girolami denied a last-ditch prosecution request to hold Peterson's trial in Modesto or Sacramento.

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

In asking Girolami to keep the trial in Modesto, or move it to Sacramento, Sen-ior Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris pointed to a survey of potential jurors' opinions -- a survey in which students allegedly fabricated data.

Girolami denied the request, saying the survey and testimony from the professor who oversaw it "were not given much weight" in his decision.

"I have moved venue mainly because of the extent of media coverage in this area and the amount of community involvement," Girolami said.

The defense had requested the move, saying Peterson could not get a fair jury in Stanislaus County.

Peterson's trial is scheduled to begin Monday, although prosecutors said in court that they would seek a two-week delay to move files and personnel to San Mateo County.

Peterson has not waived his right to a speedy trial, but attorney Mark Geragos said the defense "would try to accommodate" the prosecution request.

Scheduling details are to be addressed at a Friday hearing, including when and where a range of motions on admitting evidence will be heard.

The defense wants evidence from wiretaps, scent-tracking dogs, vehicle tracking devices and a hypnotized witness barred from trial.

Hearings on those issues are scheduled to start Monday.

"We're ready to go on Monday, and that's what we're planning on," Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said. "That's how we have to prepare."

Geragos said outside court that he did not expect major delays in starting the trial.

Defendants typically waive their right to a speedy trial, to give the defense time to prepare, unless there is a strategic advantage to moving forward quickly, such as a perceived weakness in the prosecution case. When asked why he wanted a speedy trial, Geragos countered with a question of his own:

"Why do you want me to waive time?"

Both sides estimate evidentiary hearings will take two weeks, followed by four weeks for jury selection. They estimate that testimony will last 16 weeks.

Prosecutor Rick Distaso suggested in court that evidentiary hearings could be held in Stanislaus County if the case is assigned to a different judge and that judge is willing to travel to Modesto.

San Mateo County Presiding Judge Mark Forcum said officials there can start Monday. "We will be ready," Forcum said. "We're just awaiting the assignment of a judge."

Geragos and Harris both said San Mateo County was their second choice. It has room to accommodate the trial and would be able to start immediately, according to a state report discussed in court Tuesday.

Girolami picked from a list of four counties that would not face an undue burden if they took the trial: Alameda, Orange, San Mateo and Santa Clara.

Neither Alameda nor Santa Clara could take the case immediately, according to the report.

Prosecutors had sought Santa Clara County, saying the district attorney's office there told them that a courtroom could be available.

Geragos, who wanted the case moved to Los Angeles near his office, pushed for neighboring Orange County.

"Orange County has no negatives," Geragos said after ticking off details from the report. The court has an available high security courtroom, adequate secu-rity staff and a public information officer available to handle the media rush.

Geragos also said Jackie Peterson, the defendant's mother, is on a waiting list for an organ transplant. Having the trial in Orange County, about an hour from her San Diego County home, would be more convenient for her, he said.

After the hearing, Jackie Peterson said she needs to be close to her hospital in case an organ becomes available.

She declined to say which organ she awaits; however, it is known that she takes oxygen from a portable tank.

"I don't want to talk about that right now," she said. "This is about clearing Scott's name. I hope I live long enough to see that take place."

Though she and her husband, Lee, would have preferred Southern California, Peterson said: "We are happy to have (the trial) wherever they can find a fair jury."

Laci Peterson's stepfather, Ron Grantski, said the family was starting to contemplate the financial and practical hardships of a five-month or longer trial more than an hour's drive away.

"There's no way one of us or both of us aren't going to be at the trial, one way or the other," Grantski said, referring to

Laci's mother, Sharon Rocha.

"This is all new to us," Grant-ski said. "We're still missing Laci. It was hard during the holidays for the whole family. We spent most of our time reflecting. When it comes to this part now, we want it to proceed. Hopefully, it will start soon."

Goold declined to comment on Girolami's selection of San Mateo, citing the judge's gag order in the case. The attorney also declined to comment on the possibility of a new judge.

Geragos said he was pleased with the San Mateo decision but had "mixed emotions" about potentially losing Girolami.

"I just think it would be a waste of judicial resources to have some other judge try to get up to speed at this point," Geragos said outside court. "It's my hope the the (Administrative Office of the Courts) sees fit to let Judge Girolami take a road trip."

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.

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