For Peterson reporter, no substitute for being there

12/24/2007 12:38 AM

10/20/2014 10:12 AM

Among the most difficult tasks while covering Scott Peterson's 2004 double-murder trial: staying on top of literally thousands of facts flying around at all times. Monitoring TV and newspapers was a daunting chore. I'm sure we missed hundreds of reports. Just keeping track of everything presented in the courtroom was hard enough.

The Bee had only one permanent courtroom pass, like everyone else, but two full-time reporters covering the trial -- me and John Cote'. So, we would take turns. Sometimes I would get up early to try snagging a daily pass in the public lottery held on a sidewalk 90 minutes before a session.

An overflow audio room a block and a half away for reporters without passes proved to be a poor substitute for the courtroom, where we could see jurors studying Scott Peterson or Sharon Rocha or chuckling among themselves at various witness statements. We needed to see Judge Alfred Delucchi's face as he grew impatient when prosecutors Rick Distaso and Dave Harris seemed to drag their feet on sharing evidence with Peterson's team.

Seeing it live, we felt, allowed us to better inform you.

A year after the trial, Harris coolly insisted that they never panicked, that they had everything in control from start to finish. Yes, the prosecution achieved its goal in the end, but John and I and all the reporters watching from a few feet away knew that things had started rather badly for the government.

John and I could see that jurors were impressed with Peterson's celebrity attorney, Mark Geragos, virtually from the start, when he exposed a police blunder over comments about meringue on Martha Stewart's TV show. It was no surprise to us when a juror, dismissed three weeks into the trial, said Peterson was headed toward acquittal. We knew from off-the-record, private conversations that people seeking justice for Laci were seething at the prosecution's performance -- and demanding more.

It's probably not fair to give all credit for the prosecution's impressive rebound to Birgit Fladager, a soft-voiced but unflinching chief deputy district attorney who suddenly began attending court every day a month into the trial. But that seemed to signal a turn in the trial's tenor, at least to those watching from inside. We saw jurors warm to her as she stood up to Geragos.

I never saw Peterson, always dressed in a conservative suit, interact with attorneys seeking his execution.

He often smiled and seemed to joke with bailiffs as he entered the courtroom from a private hallway, usually glancing and nodding to members of his family seated behind him. But as soon as he took his seat, he generally kept his gaze straight ahead, toward the judge, witness stand and jurors. He often whispered to his lawyers as witnesses took the stand.

Reporters in every media accurately recounted Peterson's utter lack of emotion at the trial's three critical moments: when jurors found him guilty in November 2004, pronounced the death sentence a month later and as the judge affirmed the sentence three months after that. It's true that Peterson wore the same face throughout most of the trial, but there was one unforgettable departure.

In September 2004, he dabbed his eyes, nose and mouth with a tissue while a medical examiner discussed wall-length slides of Conner Peterson's tiny body. I closely watched for more than an hour as Conner's father hunched forward, his head close to the table in front of him as he visibly appeared to gulp, gulp, gulp.

I had not seen anything close to that uncommon display before, and I never saw it again. But I wouldn't have seen it at all if I'd been relegated that day to the listening room.

John and I eventually found a way to get both of us in the courtroom at the same time. But it came with incredible risk, one I still can't believe we were stupid enough to take.

Our newsroom is blessed with extremely talented graphic artists. Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami didn't allow cameras in his Modesto courtroom for the preliminary hearing, so Laurie McAdam spent hours practicing quick sketches and became a proficient courtroom artist, allowing The Bee to give readers the full package with colorful images to complement text.

Delucchi ruled against cameras in Redwood City. The Bee couldn't spare Laurie every day of what became a yearlong trial, sending her periodically to sketch important witnesses such as Amber Frey and Sharon Rocha. But Laurie secured a permanent courtroom pass -- clearly marked for an artist, not a reporter -- and left it in our Redwood City apartment.

I don't remember when it dawned on us to use Laurie's pass to try sneaking past the gruff bailiffs. If they ever realized we were conning them, I'm sure they would have confiscated the pass, and they might have seized our permanent reporter's pass as well. In hindsight, it was dumb. But John and I were desperate to do our jobs the best we could, and that demanded that both of us be in the courtroom as much as possible, one on each side for maximum benefit.

Laurie's pass closely resembled the reporter's pass except for the word "artist" at the bottom, which I would nonchalantly cover with a couple of fingers when showing the bailiff. I realized that consistency was key, so I began covering "reporter" as well when I used the real pass. That proved to be a smart move. One day, the sternest of the bailiffs sneered, "What are you trying to pull?" and triumphantly snatched the pass from my hand. I played dumb. It was the real pass, not the decoy, and she scowled as she returned it to me and let me enter.

Though I hadn't been caught, I was seriously shaken. Never again did I try using the decoy if it was her turn to screen passes -- I would simply sacrifice that session and retreat to the substandard audio room.

Thankfully, most judges allow laptop computers in courtrooms. We took notes, and instant messaging let us communicate with each other, fellow reporters and even our bosses far away in the newsroom.

Dr. Charles March's meltdown during cross-examination by one of the prosecutors was a true Perry Mason moment. The defense witness admitted basing a critical medical opinion partly on comments made at a baby shower, and begged jurors to cut him some slack. I was almost too stunned to type. As the wide-eyed gallery looked on in amazement, a TV reporter across the courtroom IM'd me: "This is bloody."

But laptops have a fairly significant drawback. While few can decipher my scribbled shorthand, a laptop screen is easy to read. And I hate when people do that. It just feels like an invasion of privacy. Keep your eyes to yourself.

Some reporters were sly about sneaking a peek. Others, mostly broadcast reporters, openly peered around to see what I was writing. It bugged the heck out of me.

One day I wrote on a laptop from a bench just outside the courthouse, facing the plaza, my back to the wall. I hadn't noticed a window to the bottom-floor courthouse press room. I glanced up and to my amazement saw two reporters reading my screen through the glass.

So I began taking notes in French, a language I'm mostly fluent in thanks to a couple of lengthy stays in Europe in my early 20s. All potential quotes went down in English, to preserve accuracy, but much of the rest was French, and none of the reporters to my knowledge could figure it out. It became an amusing novelty among the press corps, but served its purpose.

The Bee had a long-standing policy discouraging reporters from appearing on TV and radio shows. Since then, things seem to have loosened up and you'll see and hear our people in other media from time to time.

But back then, John and I steadfastly refused hundreds of offers. We were accused of being secretive -- which we were, for good reason -- and unfriendly, which wasn't intended.

We came to realize that the no-talk policy saved us. John and I already worked long, hard days and could not fathom adding to that. One TV appearance would have opened the door to dozens of demands that would have proven impossible to meet. Our egos, of course, led us to imagine the possibilities. We even discussed potential topics over dinners with TV reporters, who were forever anxious to land something different. But it never happened.

Except for once.

I got a call in summer 2003, before the preliminary hearing, from Los Angeles. A TV crew from Paris had been following the buildup to the recall of Gov. Davis and the election of Gov. Schwarzenegger. Alexandre Jordonov, from the station Canal Plus, owned by Capa Télévision, became intrigued with Peterson reports and called my number. He was surprised when I responded in French and he pushed for an interview.

My boss agreed, reasoning that it would only appear in France and was not likely to create a stampede of other requests. He was right. And I gained newfound respect for the no-talk policy, because I really stunk on camera. It's definitely not my thing.

My family is wonderfully supportive, but the trial demanded sacrifice.

I remember a frenzied call when part of our fence blew down in a windstorm. Friends helped patch it up, because I couldn't get away.

I got an even more frantic call after a line drive in girls softball caused blood to spurt from little Brenly's eye. My wife rushed her to the emergency room, stranding Shea at ballet practice and Sam at basketball practice. I could do little more than fret.

Perhaps my wife's cousin sacrificed the most. He patiently endured 12 hours of dialysis every day while waiting for the trial's end and my extra kidney.

Sam's seventh birthday fell on a weekend that year, so I was there. But my daughters, who were born one day short of three years apart, turned 9 and 12 during the week. We met in Livermore for dinner and a quick game of miniature golf. Driving back to Redwood City that night was hard, but at least I got to be with my girls for an hour or two.

During the summer school break, Shea stayed with me for a couple of nights. She was 11 and wanted to see what her daddy was doing, so we stood in the public lottery line and got lucky. I was proud to have my little girl next to me that afternoon in the courtroom.

In a corridor during a break, Geragos -- a doting father himself -- approached to meet Shea. As soon as he turned a corner, a Court TV reporter playfully took her by the shoulders and said, "Don't talk to him. He's the devil." We all laughed.

That night we took CalTrain to see the Giants play the Dodgers. It was a late night, and Shea slept on my shoulder the next afternoon in court while I banged furiously, as usual, on my laptop. I put in 11 hours that day. Not exactly quality time with a child, but the best I could do.

It seemed as if I were living in two worlds, but I kept wanting to bring them together.

Once, I got off early enough to meet my family in Oakland for a production near the Mormon temple attended by many in our Salida congregation. I had been missing them terribly, Brenly was curious about my life in Redwood City, one thing led to another and I ended up taking her back to my apartment. We reasoned it would be similar to Shea's earlier stay.

As we neared Redwood City, I began to see several problems in our lack of preparation. The biggest hurdle would be getting her in the courtroom. She hadn't brought student ID, making her ineligible to even try the public pass lottery.

I remembered speaking with Geragos' delightful daughter of about the same age when she came to watch her father in action. On a whim, I called him and mentioned the problem I would have getting Brenly in. First, Geragos assured me that testimony expected the next day would not be gruesome, then he offered to absorb Brenly into his entourage, which generally passed by bailiffs without question. We agreed to meet at a certain time and place the next morning for the "custody handoff."

I was impressed, but not surprised, by his chivalry. Cable TV viewers know he is charming and articulate. In many contacts over the preceding year I had seen an engaging, personable side many times, and it's clear he loves his children. It seems funny now to say that I would not hesitate to put that which is most precious to me -- my family -- in the personal care of Scott Peterson's lawyer, but that was quite true.

Other doubts began to cloud my mind, however. People undoubtedly would see me guiding a little girl to Geragos and would ask questions. After all, he wasn't even supposed to talk to me because of the gag order. Curious members of the press corps, who snatched at every tidbit even remotely connected to the case, might question my objectivity, something I could not have.

In the end, Brenly herself confided some anxiety about the whole thing. I called it off -- and breathed a sigh of relief. Brenly was more than happy to watch cartoons in the apartment, and I was not beholden to a favor from "the devil."

Constant vigilance by others in the newsroom helped us present the first full reviews of arguably the two most important of more than a dozen books spawned by the Peterson case.

A Bee copy editor spotted "Witness for the Prosecution of Scott Peterson," Amber Frey's best-selling memoir, in a Modesto grocery store three days before it was scheduled to be released. John, who soon would accept a job with a Florida newspaper, spent his last shift at The Bee -- on New Year's Day 2005 -- giving readers their first glimpse of Frey's book.

Almost a year later, another editor ran across a display of "For Laci" by her mother, Sharon Rocha, in a Turlock bookstore four days before its scheduled release. I hustled down to Turlock, sped-read and produced the first review of what also would become a national best-seller.

Both stores, by the way, pulled their premature displays in embarrassment until the appointed times.

Five years later, I still abhor what happened to Laci and Conner Peterson.

But I've never regretted the role I played in telling the story. It's my job.

The first roughly two years, through Peterson's arrival on death row, were almost an unbroken shot of adrenaline. It was a thoroughly exciting, grueling, thrilling period that deeply touched the lives of many people, me included.

I wouldn't say the case changed my life. I still live in the same house with the same family and even the same dog. I still drive the same truck and still work at The Bee.

And I still don't give a straight answer when people ask if I think Scott killed Laci. It wouldn't matter if I did.

What mattered before, and still does and always will, is family. I love mine more than anything and thank them for allowing me to experience a once-in-a-career assignment, and to come home when it was done.

When Scott lost his, he lost everything.

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

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