After nearly a year of police work, defense preparation and unrelenting media coverage, the Peterson investigation is far from over.
And as long as detectives -- public and private -- continue searching for clues, Judge Al Girolami says he won't slow them down by unveiling evidence gathered long ago.
That's the logic behind his latest ruling in the high-profile case, in which he explains why search and arrest warrant documents and autopsy reports and photographs must remain under wraps.
"There continues to be considerable ongoing investigation that can be, and would be, prejudiced by the release of these documents," Girolami wrote in the ruling. He made the decision Nov. 18 but released it in writing Saturday.
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The secret documents normally are made public almost immediately. But the judge sealed them to preserve Scott Peterson's right to a fair trial, according to the ruling.
Three weeks ago, at the conclusion of a lengthy preliminary hearing, Girolami ordered Peterson to stand trial on charges of slaying his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
A trial date was set for Jan. 26, but there is much speculation about delays that could push it back many months.
Girolami noted that the documents sought by media were not introduced as official evidence at the preliminary hearing. And that begs the question: How much evidence did prosecutors hold back?
"I'm sure there is a lot more evidence," said Ruth Jones of McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, "but I doubt if there is any devastating, conclusive evidence.
"You see it on television all the time: 'Oh, my God,' the audience gasps, and we know who the killer is. If (Peterson prosecutors) had evidence like that, we would have seen it at the preliminary hearing," said Jones, a former New York City prosecutor. "What we'll probably see (at trial) is more evidence like the type we saw -- little pieces added together that point to the killer."
Ernie Spokes, a Modesto defense attorney, noted that authorities sometimes work on cases for more than a year before tracking down key evidence.
For example, Scott Avery Fizzell remained free for nearly nine years after murdering Debi Whitlock in a home near Davis High School in 1988. Modesto police arrested Fizzell in Arkansas after receiving a tip.
"The rocks are not all turned over (in the Peterson case) because nobody has found the gold nugget yet," Spokes said. He referred to the preliminary hearing, which suggested a case built on circumstantial evidence, not a smoking gun.
For instance, forensic pathologists could not determine causes of death after examining the remains of mother and son, recovered from salt water nearly four months after Laci Peterson disappeared Christmas Eve. The mother's head and extremities were missing.
Though prosecutors believe she was killed in her home on Covena Avenue in Modesto, they produced little evidence of a crime scene -- and no murder weapon.
"I would have to believe the Modesto Police Department is still actively investigating this case," Spokes concluded. He said Mark Geragos, Peterson's attorney, surely continues to pursue evidence as well.
Girolami also denied a media request to review autopsy photos, despite the fact that media have no intent to publish them.
"Certainly the families of the decedents are entitled to considerable deference that these photographs not be made public fodder for the prurient interests of the curious," Girolami wrote. "The court is satisfied that the family's privacy interests overcome any public right to access to these autopsy photos.
"Having personally examined the photographs," he continued, "the court finds that it would be highly disturbing to a family member if this evidence were disseminated to the media, even if copies were not provided."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or email@example.com.