Scott Peterson's trial appears headed to the Bay Area after a judge ruled Thursday that massive pretrial publicity would preclude a fair trial in Stanislaus County.
"A change of venue is necessary to protect the integrity of this proceeding," Judge Al Girolami said, adding that he regretted the inconvenience the move will mean for witnesses and the higher costs the county will incur.
Girolami designated Santa Clara, San Mateo and Alameda counties as preferred destinations for the trial.
The judge also recommended excluding from contention San Francisco and Central Valley counties, including San Joaquin, Fresno and Sacramento.
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The decision to move the trial marked a victory -- if only a partial one -- for the defense, which has argued that it is impossible for Peterson to get a fair trial in his wife's hometown.
"We're extremely pleased the court has taken the first step in ensuring a fair trial," defense attorney Mark Geragos said outside the courthouse.
During the proceeding, Geragos listed his top three choices for trial as "Los Angeles, Los Angeles, Los Angeles" -- where his office is.
Prosecutors said the ruling was simply "part of the process."
"It's one more ruling, and there will be a lot more rulings as time goes on," Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said.
Attorneys Thursday estimated the Peterson case will last at least 5 1/2 months. The 31-year-old Modesto man is charged with murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Girolami's decision came before allegations surfaced that one of the surveys the judge considered contained fraudulent data. It is unclear what impact, if any, those allegations may have on the decision to move the trial.
The judge's trial site recommendations have been for-warded to the Administrative Office of the Courts, the state court administrative body, Stanislaus Superior Court Executive Officer Michael Tozzi said late Thursday.
That office assists in determining feasible locations for a trial based on available space, personnel and other factors.
Venue decision due Jan. 20
After weighing the AOC's options and getting prosecution and defense input, Girolami is scheduled to make a decision on where the trial will move at a Jan. 20 hearing.
He gave insight into his thinking when he directed the prosecution and defense to suggest three options each considering the following criteria:
Peterson's trial date is set for Jan. 26. Logistical requirements for moving the case make that date nearly impossible to meet, legal observers said.
Girolami on Thursday also raised the possibility he would not continue with the case when it moves. If he elects not to handle the case, the presiding judge in the county it is sent to can assign someone or the AOC can appoint a retired judge.
Girolami announced his tentative decision to move the trial at the start of the hearing, giving prosecutors an uphill battle as prosecution and defense witnesses who conducted surveys on change of venue testified.
Factors cited for trial move
Girolami weighed several factors in making his decision, including community size, nature of the offense, status of the victim and the accused, political overtones, and nature and extent of the publicity.
The "massive media coverage," including regular front-page stories in The Bee, was a major factor in the decision, the judge said.
He also cited the crowd that gathered outside the Stanislaus County Jail after Peterson's April arrest.
Geragos hammered on those points, deriding The Bee's coverage as biased against his client as he read headlines and snippets from a sheaf of stories in court.
Prosecutor Dave Harris argued that media coverage would follow the case, regardless.
"The press is not going to go away. It's never going to go away," Harris said. "By changing the venue, we take away the voice of the community letting them decide this particular case."
Decision for trial attacked
Attorneys are scheduled to return to court Wednesday for a hearing on a defense motion to throw out Girolami's decision to hold Peterson over for trial.
Much of Thursday's hearing was dominated by experts called to address whether Stanislaus County residents could give Peterson a fair trial.
Ebbe Ebbesen, a psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego, maintained that "it would be very easy to get a fair jury here."
Geragos attempted to portray Ebbesen as a hired gun and the prosecution "witness of choice." Ebbesen testified he had previously taken the stand 20 to 30 times and had never recommended a change of venue.
Geragos also derided Ebbesen's survey, which posed possible defense strategies, as inaccurate and a violation of the court's gag order.
"How many defense cases have you tried?" Geragos asked. "Oh, I forgot, you're not a lawyer. How many episodes of 'Law & Order' did you watch?"
Girolami chastised Geragos to stick to legal questions.
Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or email@example.com.