Peterson trial put on hold

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.

REDWOOD CITY -- A judge Monday delayed Scott Peterson's double-murder trial at least a week and banned cameras from the courtroom for the duration of the trial.

"No cameras," retired Alameda County Superior Court Judge Alfred Delucchi said.

Peterson, making his first appearance in a San Mateo County courtroom, stood briefly when asked if he waived his right to a speedy trial until next Monday.

"Yes," he told Delucchi. "It's a regrettable necessity, your honor."

Defense attorney Mark Geragos requested the delay because he has been ordered to begin a murder trial in Pasadena. Geragos said he wanted to start Peterson's trial "within 24 hours" of wrapping up that case, but also suggested he may seek to have Peterson's trial moved to a new county. It is in San Mateo County on a change of venue from Stanislaus County.

Peterson, 31, of Modesto, is charged with murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn son. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Peterson is due back in court Monday for a hearing largely expected to focus on procedural and scheduling issues, including when to hear motions on evidence and when to distribute juror questionnaires to gauge potential bias. The Pasadena trial is unlikely to be over by Monday, but Geragos said its length is likely to be clearer by then.

Under state law, Peterson's trial had to start Monday unless he waived his right to a speedy trial or a judge found good cause to delay it.

Delucchi, taking the bench in the case for the first time, said media coverage factored into his decision to exclude cameras. The prosecution and defense had asked for the ban.

"It could have a chilling effect on the testimony of witnesses," Delucchi said after ticking off a series of reasons to keep cameras out, including maintaining courtroom order, the potential impact on picking a fair jury and preserving privacy for witnesses, jurors and family members.

Delucchi brushed aside arguments by attorney Karl Olson, who represents a consortium of newspapers including The Bee. Olson pointed to Super Bowl photos in Monday papers in arguing that still cameras improve news coverage.

"This isn't the Super Bowl," Delucchi responded curtly.

Geragos said efforts to televise the trial were about "nothing but ratings." And he dismissed as "psycho-babble" an argument by television attorney Rochelle Wilcox that broadcasts would prove cathartic for Modesto residents who joined in massive search efforts for Laci Peterson after she was reported missing Christmas Eve 2002.

Geragos raised the possibility he may seek to have the trial moved again if the defense feels a fair jury cannot be seated here.

"We don't know if we're going to end up in San Mateo (County)," Geragos said. "This could be a way station."

Outside the courthouse, Geragos stopped short of saying he would seek to move the trial again, but noted that under the law his client could ask for a second move after questioning of potential jurors begins.

"There's always the issue of whether we can seat a fair jury," Geragos said.

Prosecutors, who had opposed moving the trial from Modesto and at one point asked Stanislaus County Judge Al Girolami to revisit his decision to change the venue, seemed wary of a potential second move.

"We're happy to stay here," Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said outside San Mateo County Superior Court.

The judge also turned down a defense request to allow Peterson a laptop computer while in jail, saying "it could lead to mischief later." Peterson had wanted the computer to review thousands of documents in the case. Inmates have limited access to computers in the jail's law library, San Mateo County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Bronwyn Hogan said.

The judge said he may allow Peterson use of a device that plays audio recordings. Authorities intercepted 3,858 phone calls with wiretaps, according to prosecution court documents.

Also in court Monday, Geragos abruptly dropped his opposition to a prosecution move that disqualified a previous judge.

Geragos had argued that prosecutors failed to disqualify retired Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Richard Arnason in a timely manner. Delucchi, who was assigned to replace Arnason, had been set to hear arguments on the issue when Geragos withdrew his challenge.

Geragos said he did so after examining Delucchi's record and reputation.

"I appreciate your confidence, Mr. Geragos," the judge replied.

Geragos called Delucchi's reputation "sterling."

"He's even and fair," Geragos said outside court. "That's all we're asking for."

Goold gave a slight smile when asked if the defense about-face surprised him.

"Nothing really surprises me about that anymore," Goold said.

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


THE PETERSON FILE

Monday

JUDGE STAYS: Defense attorney Mark Geragos said he is satisfied with Alfred A. Delucchi on the bench. Delucchi, retired from Alameda County, replaced Richard Arnason retired from Contra Costa County, when the prosecution objected to his appointment. Geragos claimed the prosecution had not objected to Arnason's appointment in a timely manner, but the lawyer decided Monday against pressing his claim.

DeLUCCHI'S DECISIONS: Trial hours in San Mateo County Superior Court will be 9:30 a.m. to about 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday; no cameras will be allowed in the courtroom; and Peterson will not get access to a laptop computer, which he had sought to review case documents.

LAST STOP? Geragos said he can ask to have the trial moved again if he does not believe his client can get a fair trial in San Mateo County.

TV COSTS: For Peterson's preliminary hearing in Modesto, the city charged television news crews that set up near the Stanislaus County Courthouse. The money went for police overtime to patrol the area and for street striping and other costs. The assessment amounted to $1,000 for each of 25 news crews for the first two weeks. When the hearing stretched on, the city charged the 20 remaining agencies $1,400. San Mateo County is charging TV crews $51,000 each to reserve sidewalk space near the courthouse in Redwood City, and $7,500 a month for satellite truck parking.

Upcoming

MONDAY: 9 a.m. hearing likely to focus on procedural and scheduling issues.

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