Misconduct by professor found

Stan State panel recommends discipline over Peterson survey

January 25, 2005 

Stephen Schoenthaler, the professor who oversaw a tainted survey that factored into the Scott Peterson double-murder trial being moved to San Mateo County, committed academic and scientific misconduct, an investigation committee has concluded.

The committee has recommended that he be suspended for a semester without pay, demoted to associate professor from full professor at California State University, Stanislaus, and placed on probation for three years.

The university released the results of its yearlong investigation Monday in response to a Modesto Bee request for the document under the California Public Records Act. The report was dated Oct. 13, 2004.

The three-member investigation committee, made up of two professors from Stanislaus State and a third from CSU, Sacramento, also found that Schoenthaler:

Violated a university policy that requires research proposals that use people to be submitted to an Institutional Review Board for approval. The process is in place to protect people involved in the research.

Failed to exercise appropriate professional judgment in designing and conducting the survey, and he "seriously deviated from the professional standards and accepted practices of the relevant research community."

Had good reason to believe that some data were fabricated before testifying at the change-of-venue hearing for Peterson. Schoenthaler vouched for the validity of the research at the hearing.

"Schoenthaler's failure to withdraw the research results … was reckless and seriously deviated from commonly accepted practices," the report states.

His failure to disclose data limitations is "extremely serious," the report continues, "particularly given his intention that these data be used in a highly publicized capital murder trial."

Schoenthaler, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Stanislaus State since 1982, remains on paid administrative leave. Meanwhile, university administrators have reviewed the final investigation report and are considering what to do next.

"Just what administration action we will take has yet to be determined," said Provost David Dauwalder.

He added that the report on Schoenthaler's role in the matter is "not binding in terms of potential personnel actions that the university may take." He said he expects the university to take action soon.

"However," he added, "it's important to remember that personnel matters are governed by the collective-bargaining agreement … so the university won't be able to reveal what happened for some time due to various potential appeals processes."

Schoenthaler declined comment, according to a woman who answered the phone at his residence. "He's not interested in speaking with anybody. Thank you," she said.

Schoenthaler's attorney could not be reached for comment.

A request for Schoenthaler's payroll records also was granted Monday. His annual pay is $83,808. He's been on paid leave since spring of 2004.

He has not taught since being placed on leave. During the first part of his leave, he performed unspecified duties outside the classroom. By the fall term, he was on leave without duties.

Several students told The Bee in December 2003 that they fabricated results for the survey, which Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami used in part in deciding to move the Peterson trial to San Mateo County.

The students claimed they used bogus responses because of deadline pressure to complete the survey, on which they received a grade. Ultimately, 31 of the 58 students were cleared, and 26 were charged and disciplined. One case is unresolved.

Also among the investigation committee's findings:

Schoenthaler had a long-standing pattern of conducting research using human subjects without review board approval.

According to university policy, this type of research must be submitted to the review board and approved before the project begins.

The same requirements were in place in 1995 when Schoenthaler oversaw a change-of-venue survey for another high-profile capital murder case, that of Richard Allen Davis, convicted of murdering 12-year-old Polly Klaas.

In 14 years, Schoenthaler has overseen 31 change-of-venue surveys, using student surveyors for the three highest-profile cases. The third involved San Joaquin County serial killer Louis Peoples.

Department chairman Paul O'Brien instructed Schoenthaler to stop the survey because it had not been submitted to the review board.

Committee members concluded that there is no clear authority for a department chairman to order a faculty member to cease specific research. But, they added, "We believe that faculty have a responsibility to take due cognizance of instructions given to them by department chairs with respect to university policies and procedures."

In November, Peterson was found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Laci, and second-degree murder in the death of their unborn son Conner. A month later, that jury came back with the death penalty. A formal sentencing has been scheduled for Feb. 25.

Bee staff writer Melanie Turner can be reached at 578-2366 or mturner@modbee.com.


PROFESSOR'S POTENTIAL PUNISHMENT

Stephen Schoenthaler could face these and other sanctions from Stanislaus State as a result of producing a fraudulent survey in connection with the Scott Peterson murder case:

  • One semester unpaid suspension.
  • A reduction in rank and salary.
  • All research with undergraduates must be supervised.
  • Prohibited for three years from serving as chairman of any graduate thesis committee or the university’s Retention, Promotion and Tenure Committee.

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