New venue, but same media circus

February 3, 2004 

REDWOOD CITY -- Cameras whirred, bulbs flashed, reporters assembled and curious onlookers peered from rain-protected eaves as the first session of Scott Peterson's much-anticipated capital murder trial got under way Monday.

An uninvited, trailer-mounted billboard across the street from the busy courthouse displayed a large "vote" tally from people calling a radio station to say whether they think Peterson is guilty of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, and unborn son.

Journalists wielding cameras and notepads swarmed members of the victims' family as they trudged in steady morning rain, hunched under umbrellas, away from the courthouse after the hearing. A cameraman careened into a passerby carrying a bunch of pink roses, knocking the man back and prompting him to curse loudly.

"A major disruption," mused Redwood City defense attorney Barry Rekoon, watching from a corner just beyond the foot traffic.

Redwood City family law attorney Jeff Cost agreed: "This is without question the largest media conclave we've ever seen."

But both said they had expected worse, given the horde of media trucks and tents that have sprouted around the courthouse since word broke two weeks ago that the trial would move here from Modesto.

About 9:30 a.m., Judge Alfred Delucchi -- referring to the billboard as a "spectacle" -- said he had asked the San Mateo County sheriff's office to order the trailer away from courthouse "environs." At 10:11 a.m., the tally showed 62 guilty and 24 innocent votes; the trailer, sponsored by talk radio KNEW, drove off about 20 minutes later.

Some bystanders said they were annoyed at the knot of reporters and law enforcement officers.

"If I had known, I would have turned around and gone back," said Artis Lewis, who left his Victorville home in Southern California at 11 p.m. Sunday and drove all night to support a friend making an appearance in an unrelated case.

Asked if he knew why the reporters were there, Lewis said, "It's the guy accused of killing his wife, right?" Turning to his friend, Jerrold Coprich, Lewis said, "What's that guy's name?"

Rafael Torres, pausing to watch after a snack in the courthouse café, couldn't come up with the names of victim or accused either. But he and the others nodded when the Peterson name surfaced.

They had seen reports on TV and in newspapers, they said.

"It's fodder for the gossip mills," said Rekoon, whose move to Redwood City five years ago had shades of the Peterson case. The former Fresno attorney had persuaded a judge to move a murder trial from Fresno in 1993 - just like Peterson's attorney obtained a change of venue from Modesto last month - and it too landed in San Mateo County.

"I fell in love with the place," Rekoon said.

Cost, who has practiced law in Redwood City for 33 years, said he "can't help" becoming a lookyloo to the Peterson proceedings. He worried that his clients would have trouble parking because his office is near the courthouse, and he worried about delays as crowds trickle through courthouse security.

"But this," Cost said, eyeing the media throng, "is significantly less than what we all feared."

Before the hearing began, San Mateo County Sheriff Don Horsley greeted people outside the courthouse, smiling as he stood by its 45-foot concrete pillars.

Dozens of deputies, most clad in baby-blue uniforms and dark neckties, milled about. Two warmly greeted Stanislaus County Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold, who grew up in Redwood City and was a policeman in nearby Atherton from 1980 to 1985.

"He looks good," sheriff's Detective William Pickens remarked to the other officer.

The interior was markedly different from Judge Al Girolami's stark Modesto surroundings. The Redwood City courtroom seats 150 people instead of just 70 and is decorated with a large green tree, a big potted plant and two vases of pink irises and white carnations. Dozens of black-and-white drawings and colored paintings hang from walls, and a water cooler sits in the back. Large windows allow natural light into the courtroom.

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

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