Peterson's files sent to San Mateo

January 27, 2004 

A court official Monday drove eight cardboard boxes of documents and evidence to San Mateo County Superior Court, completing -- at least physically -- the transfer of Scott Peterson's murder trial to Redwood City.

"They now have the person of Scott Peterson and they now have the file," Stanislaus County Court Administrator Don Lundy said Monday. "It's now officially out of our county."

On Friday, deputies whisked Peterson to a San Mateo County jail after what may have been his last Modesto court appearance.

Those apparently seamless transfers belie the logistical hurdles facing attorneys, law enforcement and court officials relocating the high-profile trial.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George has yet to announce which judge will be assigned to the case. After ordering the trial moved, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami said he didn't want to follow the case.

Girolami ruled that massive pre- trial publicity could endanger Peterson's ability to get an impartial jury in his wife's hometown.

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

The prosecution last week disqualified retired Contra Costa County Judge Richard Arnason, the judge selected to handle the case. But Friday, defense attorney Mark Geragos said prosecutors improperly disqualified Arnason.

The defense contends prosecutors failed to challenge the judge's assignment in the specified time period, according to a legal brief filed Monday in San Mateo County Superior Court.

George has said he would assign a new judge this week, and the disqualification issue may be resolved at a court proceeding set for Monday. But other logistical questions remain.

Prosecutors and police were tight-lipped Monday about when, where and how many of their staff would be moved to handle a trial estimated to last at least five months.

"There's nothing about the Peterson case I can talk about. Period," said Detective Doug Ridenour, a spokesman for the Modesto Police Department.

He refused to say if evidence -- including Peterson's 14-foot aluminum fishing boat -- would be transferred and housed in San Mateo County.

Prosecution strategy a secret

Typically, photographs of vehicles are submitted as evidence at trial. But prosecutors, in a bid to retain Peterson's seized pickup, said they planned to have jurors view the actual truck at trial.

Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold also refused to disclose details about relocating their operation.

"I think it all goes toward trial tactics," Goold said. "I think it goes to letting the defense know what we're doing as far as personnel and strategy, and we're not going to do that."

Invariably, the two prosecutors on the case, plus at least one investigator and possibly support staff would have to be housed, fed and given work space, legal observers said.

For the defense, Geragos typically brought two to four people from his office with him to court. Geragos said Monday friends in San Francisco had offered to provide him office space. He declined to estimate how much the move would cost his Los Angeles-based firm.

"I don't know," Geragos said. "I hate thinking about stuff like that."

There was "no appreciable difference" in cost for the defense between the move to Redwood City and having the trial in Modesto, Geragos said.

Ridenour and Goold declined to give estimates on how much the trial move would cost city and county taxpayers.

San Mateo County prosecutors have offered their Stanislaus County counterparts an office, said a representative from the San Mateo County district attorney's office.

The space was described as a typical office for a single attorney. It contains a desk, chair and telephone, said an assistant for Stephen Wagstaffe, San Mateo's chief criminal deputy district attorney.

Office space in the courthouse -- where the San Mateo County district attorney's office is located -- is a boon for prosecutors, San Francisco Assistant District Attorney James Hammer said.

"You can order lunch and get to work preparing for your afternoon examinations," he said.

He prosecuted the murder trial in the dog-mauling death of Diane Whipple, which was moved to Los Angeles in 2002.

In that case, prosecutors spent $220,000 above their normal trial costs because of the move, said Teresa Serata, chief financial officer for the San Francisco district attorney's office.

It cost San Francisco Superior Court an additional $354,800 to move the trial in that case. That figure covered the cost of jury service, security, and moving staff and documents to Los Angeles for the two-month trial.

Stanislaus County court officials estimated Peterson's trial could cost the court $375,000. That would fund multiple court reporters working to provide daily transcripts of the proceedings and additional cost for security and court personnel, court Executive Officer Michael Tozzi said.

Counties ask state to share cost

The preliminary estimate does not include the cost of a retired judge. Providing one would cost $513 a day plus travel expenses, a spokeswoman for the Judicial Council, which administers state courts, has said.

Stanislaus County court officials, as well as police and prosecutors, are seeking help from the state to offset the costs. San Mateo officials also are seeking special legislation to ensure the state pays. Court budgets are funded directly from the state rather than from county coffers.

"In the fiscal environment we're currently in, knowing we'll be facing deep budget cuts next fiscal year, frankly that has created more anxiety for me than the Peterson case," Tozzi said.

Lundy said he drove all the official documents to San Mateo on Monday, including the 13-volume case file, each volume 2 to 3 inches thick.

The handoff also included an 8-inch thick transcript from the preliminary hearing; 13 sealed files, including search warrant documents; evidence submitted at the preliminary hearing, like photographs and diagrams; a box of sealed evidence relating to wiretaps in the case; and 12 to 15 4-inch binders containing Girolami's notes and research on legal issues ranging from wiretaps to satellite tracking devices, Lundy said.

Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or jcote@modbee.com.

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