New Peterson judge

01/22/2004 9:30 AM

11/19/2007 2:40 PM

Retired Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Richard Arnason, who was tapped Wednesday to preside over Scott Peterson's double-murder trial, is a legend in state legal circles.

The 82-year-old judge is best known for presiding over the sensational trial of activist Angela Davis, who was acquitted of murder, kidnapping and conspiracy in 1972.

He also is known for returning to the bench after his mandatory retirement in 1995. He's handled a full caseload ever since.

"If he doesn't die in bed, he'll die on the bench," said Brian Baker, chief deputy district attorney of Contra Costa County.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George picked Arnason to hear the case. Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami said Tuesday that he doesn't want to follow the case to San Mateo County.

The trial is set to start Monday. Prosecutors, who are seeking the death penalty, said they will ask for a two-week delay to move files and personnel to the Redwood City courthouse where the trial will be held.

Peterson, 31, is charged with murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner.

Girolami, who moved the trial at defense attorney Mark Geragos' request, said a massive amount of publicity would make it impossible for Peterson to get a fair trial in Modesto.

Attorneys who know Arnason said the judge will be able to handle the media circus that surrounds the case, but they wouldn't venture a guess about how he might handle requests for live broadcasts from the courtroom.

Contra Costa County Public Defender David Coleman said Arnason is mild-mannered, but keeps a firm grip on court proceedings and does not tolerate grandstanding.

He said lawyers who take theatrical approaches look silly in Arnason's courtroom, because the judge has such a cordial manner.

"If you don't treat him courteously, you look bad," Coleman said.

Rich Raines, president of the Contra Costa County Bar Association, said lawyers on both sides want to get their most compli- cated cases tried in Arnason's courtroom.

They trust him to delve into details and give fair rulings.

"He's not a knee-jerk judge either for the prosecution or against the prosecution," Raines said. "He really does call them as he sees them."

Arnason was appointed to the bench in 1963 by Gov. Pat Brown. He retired in 1995, because a state law says judges must retire at the end of the term after their 70th birthday.

He signed up for the Judicial Council of California's assigned judges program, though, and never left the bench.

The council assigns retired judges to cover vacancies, illness and disqualifications and help with backlogs. In trial courts, assigned judges are paid $529 a day.

In more than four decades on the bench, Arnason has handled many cases that have drawn media attention.

He's best known for the Davis case, charges that stemmed from a 1970 Marin County Courthouse escape attempt that left four people dead, including a judge. Arnason took the case after five other judges withdrew or were disqualified.

Here are a few other highlights, taken from published reports:

In 2001, the judge said two high school football stars who later pleaded no contest to sev- eral sexual assaults could not be tried as adults. Proposition 21, approved by voters the year before, gave prosecutors the power to charge minors as adults in severe crimes. Arnason said the initiative violated the California Constitution.

In 1996, the judge presided over the trial of a mother who was convicted of child abuse because her 680-pound daughter died of congestive heart failure at age 13. The trial attracted national attention. Arnason sentenced the mother to three years' probation and 240 hours of community service.

In 1994, Arnason refused to sentence a man who stole $80 worth of batteries to life in

prison, even though California's "three strikes, you're out" law, adopted earlier that year, allowed the stiff sentence. The judge said he had the discretion to reduce a felony conviction to a misdemeanor.

San Mateo County Superior Court Presiding Judge Mark R. Forcum said he looks forward to meeting Arnason.

"I know he has tremendous respect and an outstanding reputation," he said.

Baker said he is surprised that Arnason agreed to preside over Peterson's trial, which is ex- pected to last five months or more. But he is not worried about the judge's qualifications or stamina.

"This could be his swan song," Baker said.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at 578-2338 or

Bee staff writer John Coté contributed to this report. He can be reached at 578-2394 or


NAME: Richard E. Arnason

BIRTHDATE: Oct. 3, 1921

EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in commerce from the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks, 1943; law degree from the University of California at Berkeley School of Jurisprudence, now known as Boalt Hall, 1945.

EXPERIENCE: Lawyer with Hamm, Arnason, Waldie & Rockwell, 1949-63; judge, Contra Costa County Superior Court, 1963-95; member of assigned judges program since 1995.

OTHER: Named judge of the year by California Trial Lawyers Association in 1973; presided over 1970s murder trial of black militant Angela Davis, in which Davis was acquitted of murder and conspiracy in the 1970 Marin County Courthouse escape attempt that resulted in the deaths of four people, including a judge.

PERSONAL: Married since 1945, four children.

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