Top deputies drafted to try case; ex-defender disputes case 'slam dunk'

04/26/2003 8:05 AM

11/20/2007 6:23 AM

Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton said Friday that he will seek the death penalty for Scott Peterson, who is accused of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci.

The announcement came after one of Brazelton's senior deputies went to the home of Laci's mother and stepfather, Sharon Rocha and Ron Grantski, a spokeswoman for the district attorney said.

Also Friday, Brazelton announced that Rick Distason and Dave Harris, senior deputy district attorneys, will prosecute the case.

And Peterson's former defense attorney, Kirk McAllister, said evidence in the case was not the "slam dunk" that state Attorney General Bill Lockyer called it last week.

Peterson, 30, pleaded not guilty Monday to two counts of murder in the deaths of his 27-year-old wife and their unborn son, Conner. Their decomposing bodies were found along the eastern shoreline of San Francisco Bay last week.

Harris and Modesto police Detective Craig Grogan, the lead investigator in the case, went to the Grantski home for the meeting with Laci Peterson's family members, to discuss the death penalty issue.

Grantski said afterward: "It's really a very hard thing. There are no winners or losers. Six months ago we were all one big loving family and now we're talking about life or death for someone."

Grantski declined to comment on his position on the death penalty.

"There's another family involved," he said. "We've lost our daughter and they've lost a son. It's horrible. We have our ups and downs. One day you think you can handle it and the next day you're a basket case."

Scott Peterson's parents, Lee and Jackie Peterson, had no comment on the district attorney's decision to go for the death penalty, said a woman who answered the telephone at the Petersons' home in San Diego County.

Assistant District Attorney Carol Shipley said the decision to seek the death penalty was not solely based on the family's input. She said it would not be appropriate to comment on the positions expressed by family members.

Earlier this week, Brazelton said the decision to seek the death penalty would be based on input from Laci Peterson's family, Scott Peterson's defense team and a committee in the district attorney's office.

However, before any of those parties had been consulted, Brazelton said he strongly supported the death penalty in this case. "If it was just my decision, I would no doubt seek the death penalty," he said Wednesday.

Change of venue debated

Saturation media coverage of the case has prompted speculation that the defense team would seek a change of venue -- to move the trial to another area -- in an attempt to ensure the seating of impartial jurors.

Brazelton has repeatedly said that he will oppose such a move, insisting that Peterson can get a fair trial in Stanislaus County.

Public Defender Tim Bazar, whose office is handling Peterson's defense, said earlier this week that it was premature to decide on whether to request a change of venue.

But widespread coverage of the case apparently prompted defense attorneys to ask prosecutors this week to agree to a gag order.

That would have prevented both sides from speaking to the press.

In an April 22 e-mail, Harris told Deputy Public Defender Kent Faulkner that he would not agree to a gag order.

"Per our boss, we can't stipulate to a 'gag' order because it creates more problems then it seems to solve," Harris wrote. "If we cut off access to the media, they will then start searching for leaks and-or making it up, I mean speculating about the facts."

Later in the e-mail, Harris stated: "I think we can all agree that we need to control the media in the courtroom."

Faulkner could not be reached for comment on the request for a gag order.

It remained unclear Friday whether defense attorneys had received any evidence in the case from the prosecution.

State law requires the disclosure of evidence at least 30 days prior to the trial. Typically, the Stanislaus County district attorney's office turns over some evidence before a preliminary hearing, attorneys said.

Brazelton said he did not expect a preliminary hearing in the case before July.

The district attorney has characterized the evidence as "voluminous" and both direct and circumstantial.

Attorney General Lockyer last week called the case a "slam dunk."

McAllister, the Modesto attorney who represented Peterson up until his arraignment, said he had not seen the prosecution's evidence.

But McAllister said the results of his own investigation cast doubt on the charges.

"If Attorney General Lockyer says it's a slam dunk, I'll give him some trial experience," McAllister said.

Deputy Public Defenders Faulkner and Maureen Keller, assigned earlier this week to handle Peterson's defense, could not be reached for comment on the death penalty decision.

Conflict of interest?

It was unclear Friday whether they or their office will continue to represent Peterson, in light of a potential conflict of interest involving two men arrested in the burglary of a house across the street from the Petersons' home.

Police believe the break-in occurred in the early morning of Dec. 26, two days after Peterson was reported missing, and investigators ruled out a connection between the two events.

The men, Steven Wayne Todd, 35, and Donald Glen Pearce, 44, could be called as witnesses in the Peterson trial.

The disposition of the burglary charges could not be determined Friday. But, if the public defender's office represented either of them, there could be a conflict of interest.

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

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