Peterson: Moving Toward Trial

January 24, 2004

Peterson now in Redwood City

Authorities spirited Scott Peterson to the San Mateo County jail Friday, shortly after a judge delayed for a week the start of his trial on double-murder charges.

Stanislaus County Judge Al Girolami pushed the start date to Feb. 2 to allow the case to be moved to Redwood City amid questions about who would preside over the trial.

Within an hour of what apparently was Peterson's last courtroom appearance in Stanislaus County -- a mundane proceeding to certify the court transcript late Friday morning -- he was secretly moved to Redwood City.

He arrived at the Maguire Correctional Facility at 2:27 p.m. and was placed in protective custody, according to a written statement released by the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department.

"We never had an intent to tell anybody when exactly we would move him," said Kelly Huston, a spokesman for the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department. "We just didn't want there to be the same kind of spectacle outside the jail as we saw during his booking."

About 200 people -- many yelling and waving signs -- waited outside the downtown jail when Peterson was driven in April 18 after his arrest near San Diego.

Defense attorney Mark Geragos had pointed to the crowd as part of his argument for moving the trial, saying it was impossible to find a fair jury in Stanislaus County.

The trial had been scheduled to begin Monday in San Mateo County Superior Court, with motions concerning evidence.

Peterson is charged with murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

The 31-year-old Modesto man has not waived his right to a speedy trial, which under state law must commence within 60 days of his Dec. 3 arraignment, unless a judge finds sufficient reason to delay it. If the trial doesn't commence on time, the defense can have the charges dismissed. It now is set to start on the final day allowed under state law.

It is unclear who will be on the bench in the Redwood City courthouse Feb. 2 to hear the issue.

Girolami has said he does not want to move with the case, but Friday left open the possibility -- however slight -- that he would remain.

Prosecutors objected Thursday to the judge assigned to replace Girolami, retired Contra Costa County Judge Richard

Arnason, saying he was "prejudiced" against their interests.

Typically, that would have resulted in Arnason being automatically disqualified from the case. Under state law, each side in a criminal case can disqualify one judge without giving a specific reason.

But Geragos on Friday argued that prosecutors had not filed their challenge in a timely manner -- pointing to complex issues of who had jurisdiction of the case after Arnason was assigned.

Geragos also questioned whether California State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George followed the correct procedure when he appointed Arnason and said George was "micromanaging" the case.

"I don't want to tangle with Chief Justice George," Geragos said, after saying the justice is "like the 800-pound gorilla; he can do what he wants."

But Geragos argued that San Mateo County Presiding Judge Mark Forcum should decide who is appointed for the trial.

Neither Forcum nor George could be reached for comment Friday.

Prosecutor Rick Distaso dismissed the defense argument as bluster.

"I don't think anything improper has happened," Distaso said in court. "Of course, if the defendant hadn't made his motion (to move the case), he could have his trial Monday in Stanislaus County."

George will pick a new trial judge next week, according to a statement from the state Administrative Office of the Courts released earlier this week. That decision is expected Tuesday or Wednesday, a Stanislaus County court official said during Friday's hearing.

The prosecution and defense were ordered to submit legal briefs on whether Arnason's disqualification was proper.

Some possibilities

The issue is to be addressed Feb. 2, but the challenge triggers multiple scenarios for which judge will preside over that proceeding:

A new judge could be assigned to the case.

Arnason could be brought back onto the case to hear the prosecution's challenge against him.

Girolami could stay with the case permanently or oversee the next hearing if a judge has not been appointed by then.

"As of right now, Girolami is the judge of record," said Lynn Holton, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts. "He would have author-ity to preside over a hearing until a new trial judge is named."

Geragos has urged Girolami to take a "road trip" and remain on the case.

"I want your honor," Geragos said Friday.

Girolami did not rule out the possibility in court, at one point saying, "If it's me," when talking about the next proceeding.

"I'm waiting for further orders from on high," Girolami said.

Girolami refused to rule on a defense request to allow Peterson a laptop computer in jail to give him access to the nearly 35,000 pages of electronic police reports and other documents in the case.

Girolami earlier this week ordered the trial moved to San Mateo County after ruling that massive publicity endangered Peterson's ability to get a fair trial in his wife's hometown.

Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or

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