Peterson: Moving Toward Trial

February 1, 2004

Numbers support Peterson trial shift

By the numbers, Scott Peterson appears to have made a smart move by getting his murder trial switched from Modesto to San Mateo County.

"By the numbers" means looking at demographic indicators, which give only a peek into pools of potential jurors in each community.

But players on each side of the high-profile case give more than a passing glance at the numbers, looking for any possible advantage.

"We would research to figure out what kind of English to put on it," said Amy Singer, founder and president of

Florida-based Trial Consultants Inc. "If the community likes cowboy music, you don't want to play opera."

And here is what the numbers say:

Compared with Stanislaus County, San Mateo County is:

  • Older. The median age is 36.8 years, compared with 31.7 in Stanislaus County.
  • Wealthier. Per capita income is $36,045 annually, compared with $16,913 here.
  • Better-educated. Thirty-nine percent of San Mateo County residents have college degrees, compared with 14.1 percent here.
  • More liberal. Republican Party membership is 26.3 percent there, compared with 43.22 percent in Stanislaus County.
  • On their faces, each factor tends to favor a defendant, some jury experts say.

    First, age. Stanislaus County's median of 31.7 years nearly mirrors Peterson's age. And study after study says that many peer groups tend to be harder on their own, said jury consultant Robert Hirschhorn of Texas. His firm worked for acquitted rape defendant William Kennedy Smith, Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols and the federal government in part of the Whitewater case.

    "It's one of those counterintuitive things," Hirschhorn said. Men in their early 30s will ask themselves what they likely would do on Christmas Eve if their wives were pregnant, and few will come up with a fishing trip, Hirschhorn said.

    Peterson told authorities he fished alone the day his wife was reported missing.

    Going hand in hand

    Next, income and schooling, which often are closely related. "As part of your education, you're taught to make finer distinctions; you question things more," Singer said. And a cerebral jury is less likely to seek revenge for a heinous crime

    Singer and Hirschhorn agreed.

    But, Hirschhorn added, a better-educated jury also is more likely to "see through smoke and mirrors" for which defense lawyers are notorious. And that could play in the prosecution's favor.

    Additionally, white-collar jurors -- by virtue of their jobs -- tend to "make more difficult decisions," said Ruth Jones, a former New York City prosecutor who is teaching criminal law at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. And that might tip the balance toward prosecutors seeking a death penalty.

    Lastly, political partisanship. Liberal jurors, by and large, hand down more liberal verdicts.

    "Who would Scott Peterson rather have sitting on his jury: Bill Clinton or George Bush?" Singer asked.

    Two additional minor indicators also bode better for the defendant in San Mateo County: People in Stanislaus County are twice as likely to own boats and more than twice as likely to have fishing licenses, records show.

    "You don't want any fishermen on the jury if you're Scott Peterson," Singer said.

    Sturgeon anglers in particular have scoffed at the image of Peterson fishing alone in stormy San Francisco Bay in a 14-foot aluminum boat. Testimony from a 12-day preliminary hearing revealed that Peterson had a near-useless anchor, carried an ultralight pole more suited for stream fishing, had not owned a yearlong fishing license since 1994, and "couldn't say" what type of fish he tried to catch when a policeman asked him later that day.

    Singer said jury consultants also would look carefully at divorce rates. Her company has monitored some Internet chat rooms, detecting a high degree of anger among divorced women.

    But the numbers -- 10.4 percent divorced in Stanislaus County, 9 percent in San Mateo County -- are too close to mean anything, Singer said.

    In the end, numbers can be interesting and end up meaning nothing, experts said.

    "You don't get an automatic vote," Jones said, "even with a certain profile."

    Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or

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