Is Geragos going to seek new venue for Peterson?

February 8, 2004 

The list of oddities in the Peterson double-murder trial could grow, if his defense attorney asks for the trial to be moved again and gets his wish.

Most lawyers are more than happy if a judge agrees to move a high-profile trial out of town. But Scott Peterson's Los Angeles attorney Mark Geragos continues to hint about asking for a move to Southern California -- even after having persuaded a judge to move the trial from Modesto to San Mateo County, on the San Francisco Peninsula.

"It's really unprecedented," said Ohio-based trial consultant Daniel Young.

Several people in the legal community could not recall a case in which a defendant sought -- much less obtained -- two venue changes.

"I'm not aware of any," said Gerald Uelmen, a criminal procedure specialist at Santa Clara University School of Law who was on O.J. Simpson's defense team.

Lynn Holton, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts in California, said her office's records don't go back far enough to determine if it has happened. How-ever, "you could say that it is unusual," Holton said.

Peterson, 31, faces the death penalty if convicted of slaying his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son. A judge, citing massive local publicity, last month agreed to move the trial to San Mateo County.

But Geragos never budged from his pro-Los Angeles position. News reports last week of a defense-sponsored poll attempting to gauge potential jurors' attitudes in San Mateo County suggest that Geragos could be trying to line up data supporting a southward push.

Some legal experts think that would be a long shot.

"It's one thing to say, 'Take it from the area where the crime occurred,'" said Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of Southern California and former Justice Department trial attorney. "But it's unlikely a judge would move it from another area where the crime didn't occur."

If attorneys were allowed to shop endlessly for advantages, the system would spin into "a big mess," said University of San Francisco School of Law Professor Robert Talbot. "It's just a hard road to go down."

Ramon Magana, a Modesto defense attorney who twice succeeded in moving high-profile murder cases, said he never second-guessed either judge's selection of a new locale. In both cases, he already had polled attitudes in other counties; until a few days ago, Geragos' pollster questioned Stanislaus County residents only.

"We did our homework well in advance," Magana said.

Polluting jury pool

Geragos might run a risk by polling potential jurors in San Mateo County, Young said.

"The more they try to contact people, the more they're going to pollute the jury pool," Young said, "and it almost becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy" that Peterson can't get a fair trial there, either.

Uelmen noted that Geragos -- rather than gathering data supporting a second move -- might be trying to get a read on attitudes, to help prepare for the case.

That's what Uelmen's camp did before the Simpson double-murder case. Their polling produced a small surprise -- that women weren't necessarily as prejudiced by allegations of Simpson's domestic violence as the lawyers had feared.

"Frequently you're polling jurors just to strategize," Uelmen said, "to get some sense of what kind of jury you want to look for."

The attorneys said they would not blame Geragos if he asks for a second change of venue. Talbot, who has done several surveys in the San Mateo area, said it is much more homogenous and conservative than Los Angeles, which might treat a defendant less harshly.

But Los Angeles never was in the running. Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami, the case's initial judge, pared a list to Alameda, Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, though the state Judicial Council added Southern California's Orange County. Geragos has said he prefers Orange County.

Both San Mateo and Orange appear to favor a defendant over Stanislaus, based solely on demographics, because their populations are larger and, on average, wealthier and better-educated.

Differences in GOP sway

However, nearly 49 percent of Orange County residents are registered in the Republican Party, compared with 43 percent and

26 percent in Stanislaus and San Mateo counties, respectively. And conservative jurors typically embrace tough-on-crime agendas.

But another measuring stick suggests the opposite. The Associated Press reports that Orange County juries have sent fewer people per capita to death row than has Stanislaus County.

If asking for two moves is extraordinary, the desire for a fair trial is not, the attorneys agreed.

"You want to go to a place," Magana said, "where you feel your client is going to get a fair shake."

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

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