Prosecutors: Peterson fueled publicity

01/03/2004 6:05 AM

11/19/2007 2:36 PM

Prosecutors Friday blamed Scott Peterson and his attorney for fueling publicity in the double-murder case, and said there was no evidence to show that moving Peterson's trial would make it fairer.

"It would be absurd to reward the defense by granting a change-of-venue motion for their conduct, which has caused much of the publicity of which they complain," Senior Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris wrote in documents opposing an effort to move the trial, filed Friday in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

The defense is seeking to relocate Peterson's trial, arguing "pervasive and negative" media reports have created a "lynch mob atmosphere" in Stanislaus County. A hearing on the issue is scheduled for Thursday.

Prosecutors contend that such a move is unnecessary and that the defense has failed to show that jurors elsewhere in California would be less biased toward Peterson.

"This case does not concern any prominent figures, mass murder or community threats of race riots," Harris wrote. "The defendant's ability to select a fair and impartial jury in this case has not been compromised."

Harris argued that defense attorney Mark Geragos' regular news conferences on "the courthouse steps promising to prove the defendant's innocence and produce the real killers" fanned the media coverage that Geragos now is protesting.

Harris also cited Peterson's appearance on TV programs including "Good Morning America" and "Prime-Time Live," in which he made "pleas for the safe return of his wife and child," as evidence of Peterson stoking interest in the case.

"The defense makes much of the fact that the media has referred to the defendant as an adulterer, but it was the defendant who admitted it on national television," Harris wrote.

Harris did not address that Peterson made the admission after his affair had been reported in The Bee and his lover had held a news conference at the Modesto Police Department.

Harris also did not note that Laci Peterson's family held multiple news conferences and conducted TV interviews after her disappearance to generate interest in the case. Police also have held several news conferences.

Both sides have exchanged barbs over media coverage in a case that generated unusual TV, print and radio attention soon after the pregnant Laci Peterson was reported missing Christmas Eve 2002.

Before Judge Al Girolami issued a gag order in the case, the defense alleged that police myopically targeted Scott Peterson and deliberately leaked damaging information about him.

Peterson, 31, is charged with murdering his wife and the couple's unborn son, Conner. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

As evidence the trial should be moved, the defense has cited May and December telephone surveys that indicated 59 percent and 39 percent of Stanislaus County residents, respectively, already had decided Peterson is guilty.

Stephen Schoenthaler, a sociologist and criminal justice professor at California State University, Stanislaus, who conducted the May survey, said the results showed "there is clear evidence that a fair and impartial trial cannot be had in Stanislaus County."

That determination contradicts the finding by Ebbe Ebbesen, a psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego, who conducted phone surveys for the prosecution in Sacramento, Stanislaus and Los Angeles counties during the last two weeks in December.

"We found no evidence from our survey that moving to another venue would make any difference in the ability of Scott Peterson to receive a fair trial," Ebbesen wrote in a summary of his findings.

He also wrote that there were no "statistically significant differences" across the three counties in knowledge about the case and whether residents "know enough about the case from the media to form an opinion about whether Scott is guilty."

"Evidence from our survey suggests that potential jurors from Stanislaus can keep an open mind and set aside what-ever they know and feel about this case."

Prosecutors took aim at the December defense survey by Paul J. Strand, a jury consultant and dean of the College of Arts and Letters at San Diego State University, for failing to ask whether jurors could set aside their opinions in the case. Under state law, it is not necessary for jurors to have no knowledge of a case. However, they must be able to set aside their opinions and decide the matter based on evidence presented in court.

Ebbesen's survey showed that about 80 percent of Stanislaus County people polled said they could keep an open mind, according to his summary.

Prosecutors noted that the Strand survey does not compare potential juror attitudes with those in another county, arguing that it thus fails to show how Peterson's fair trial right would be protected by a move.

Harris, of the district attorney's office, compared the Peterson case to the 1970-71 Charles Manson case, "where a change of venue was denied because there was no place to go."

"The defendant has proven that 'pretrial publicity has been geographically widespread and pervasive' and has failed to prove that jurors in any other county would view this case differently," Harris wrote.

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


FACTORS IN A CHANGE OF VENUE

The California Supreme Court's standard for weighing whether to move trials takes into account five factors:

NATURE AND GRAVITY OF OFFENSE

There is no verdict more serious than the death penalty, Peterson attorney Mark Geragos wrote. Prosecutor Dave Harris agreed, but said this alone does not warrant moving the trial.

COMMUNITY SIZE

The more people, the less reason for moving, the theory goes. Geragos noted that other important cases have been moved from counties larger than Stanislaus County's population of about 468,566. Harris contends that the county is not small; it's the 16th most populous of the state's 58 counties. Modesto is the 15th largest city in the state. Harris cites state Department of Finance figures that put the county population at 481,600.

STATUS OF VICTIM AND ACCUSED

"Although almost all media reports emphasized Laci Peterson's good looks, infectious smile and other worthy attributes, Mr. Peterson has consistently been portrayed as an adulterous fertilizer salesman in dire financial difficulty who is an outsider to Modesto," Geragos wrote. Harris countered that the defense failed to provide articles that paint Scott Peterson as an outsider, saying that one portrayed Scott Peterson as "ordinary, nice and sociable." Laci Peterson's prominence after her death is not a factor because a victim who triggers a sympathetic response from strangers will have the same effect wherever the case is moved, Harris wrote.

NATURE AND EXTENT OF PUBLICITY

Geragos noted more than 8,000 media reports, including more than 500 in The Bee and hundreds more on radio and TV stations from Sacramento to the Bay Area and Fresno. Bee articles, he wrote, "have presented a very one-sided, pro-prosecution version of the case." Geragos also took to task "graphic television" and radio coverage. Harris contends that the defense has failed to show what coverage was prejudicial. He also maintains that "when there has been this much publicity, there is no point in a change of venue."

POLITICAL OVERTONES

Geragos noted that, on the day of Peterson's arrest in mid-April, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer referred to "slam-dunk" odds of conviction. Also Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, lobbied in Washington, D.C., for federal legislation regarding fetal murder, Geragos wrote. Harris countered that there are no political overtones. "The defense confuses politicians making public statements about a case with trying to further their careers at the expense of the accused," he wrote. Support for federal legislation likewise has no bearing on the case, he wrote.

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