Jury's out whether a fair trial can be held here

04/24/2003 8:40 AM

11/20/2007 6:23 AM

They came by the thousands when they heard the bodies were identified as Laci Peterson and her unborn son: Parents with toddlers, grandparents, neighbors, strangers and gawkers. They piled the front lawn of the Petersons' Modesto home with flowers and toys and other offerings, and they sobbed openly on the sidewalk.

One 7-year-old girl made a cross that she stuck in the grass, an image published in The Modesto Bee. A father of two young boys arrived Friday, as some 300 Modesto residents waited outside the county jail for Laci's husband to be booked on double-murder charges.

"See this, Scott?" the young father said, staring into a TV camera and clutching his toddler. "This is what you're missing."

But as much as residents may want to watch Peterson's capital murder trial unfold in their city, legal experts say the outpouring of grief in Modesto is likely to result in the case being moved to an area of California where jurors are far less familiar with the Petersons.

"I don't see how you're going to find an unbiased person in that commun-ity," said Michael Sands, a criminal defense attorney and professor at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. "In Sacramento, I don't have any neighbors who have dragged their kids to the Peterson house and placed teddy bears on the front lawn, but in Modesto, if they haven't done it themselves, they probably know someone who has."

Even Mayor Carmen Sabatino, doesn't think Peterson can get a fair trial in the city. He told a TV interviewer that a crowd at a jail booking at midnight Friday "indicates the jury pool in this community might be tainted."

Sands and other legal experts said that while changes of venue are often sought, they are rarely granted. Peterson's capital murder case, however, may be a textbook example of a case that needs to be moved.

"One of the things that's hard to escape notice is the degree to which the community itself has embraced Laci Peterson -- almost as a celebrity," said Kevin Clymo, a Sacramento attorney.

A decade ago, Clymo succeeded in having a trial moved to Monterey for Sacramento landlady Dorothea Puente, who was charged with murdering nine

elderly tenants and burying them in her yard. It was a sensational case that drew vast publicity, like Peterson's.

Stayner case moved to San Jose

Another example is Cary Stayner's trial in the Yosemite sightseer murders. The judge moved it from Mariposa County because of extensive pretrial publicity and that county's small pool of potential jurors. Stayner was tried and convicted in Santa Clara County.

Clymo said that to succeed in moving the trial, defense attorneys will have to prove that a fair and impartial jury cannot be found because of several factors: extensive pretrial publicity, whether the publicity was memorable and the level of prejudgment that exists in the community as a result of the publicity.

Also, attorneys can ask that a trial be moved because it involves a celebrity, a status that Clymo said he believes Laci Peterson achieved after she was reported missing on Christmas Eve.

Modesto residents were hooked on the case, drawn to the pretty woman who had vanished while eight months pregnant. Their emotional bond to her was strengthened during four months of well-publicized searches, a New Year's Eve candlelight vigil and the unrelenting spotlight on her husband.

"It's a fascinating case," Clymo said. "Everybody is talking about it. But if you took the case on the road to Monterey or Sonoma or Yolo County, you would not have the same sense that it was a celebrity who was murdered."

Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton already has said there is no need to move the trial. At the very least, a move would be inconvenient for prosecutors and witnesses.

"Where are you going to go where someone hasn't heard of this case?" Brazelton asked this week.

Defense attorneys agree that in every county, it is likely that potential jurors have heard of the case. But it is Modesto's emotional link to the case -- and the apparently overwhelming belief in Peterson's guilt -- that may make it an unsuitable home for the trial.

Attorney Robert Blasier, who was a member of O.J. Simpson's defense team, anticipates that Peterson's attorneys will make their request for a move quickly, in case the publicity dies out.

But even when "Dateline" and CNN do move their cameras to another event, Blasier said the "horrendously prejudicial" coverage of Peterson's arrest may have created a climate in which jurors feel pressured to convict.

"The whole world is focused on Modesto, and Modesto wants to see that justice is done," Blasier said. "And that has translated to Modesto wants to see Scott (Peterson) convicted. It doesn't translate to Modesto wants to see (him) have a fair trial."

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