Scott Peterson's preliminary hearing on double murder charges will be open to the public, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami ruled Thursday.
He delayed a decision on allowing cameras in the courtroom, saying he would issue a ruling in the next two days.
Also, Girolami said the defense camp earlier this week appeared to violate his gag order when, in front of a Bee reporter and photographer, an attorney discussed a theory regarding satanic ritual killings. The judge said he will consider the matter after the preliminary hearing.
Peterson, a 30-year-old Modestan, is charged in the deaths of his wife, Laci, 27, and their unborn son, Conner, and could receive the death penalty if convicted on both counts.
A preliminary hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence for a trial set for Sept. 9.
Defense attorney Mark Geragos had asked for the hearing's closure, arguing that widespread media coverage would poison jurors' minds and taint potential witnesses.
Charity Kenyon, an attorney for a group of newspapers that includes The Bee, fought to keep the hearing open, noting that similar proceedings in high-profile murder trials -- including those of O.J. Simpson, actor Robert Blake and convicted Yosemite killer Cary Stayner -- all have been open.
"This case has seen unusual publicity, but that does not mean unprecedented," said Rochelle Wilcox, an attorney representing broadcast media outlets. "Not everyone pays attention to what happens in this courtroom."
Geragos argued that the Peterson case was unique because it has created a "massive drumbeat within a small community" that would not have the same reverberation in a larger county like Los Angeles, where Geragos is from.
"I invite you, anytime you want, to move this case to LA County and we'll do an open prelim," Geragos said.
The judge said the high legal bar set by the U.S. Supreme Court to close a preliminary hearing had not been met, "even considering that this is a capital case."
"In short, this court cannot make a blanket closure," Girolami said.
Geragos later said he would not object to live TV coverage of the proceedings: "What the heck, let's just open it up and pollute the entire state."
Prosecutors and Laci Peterson's family are opposed to cameras in the courtroom.
'Not for entertainment'
"This is not for entertainment; this is not for ratings," Senior Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris said in court as Laci Peterson's mother and stepfather, Sharon Rocha and Ron Grantski, brother, Brent Rocha, and sister, Amy Rocha, sat in the front row behind him.
Harris also contended that it is "human nature" for people to act differently when they know that they are on camera. Wilcox said there is no evidence to support that assumption.
Wilcox said swarms of volunteers who helped search for Laci Peterson crave the "closure" that would be provided, at least in part, by learning of evidence through cameras. TV coverage could provide some "community relief and sense of understanding," she said.
But for the Rocha family, there will be no relief until Laci and Conner Peterson's remains are released to them, said Adam Stewart, a civil attorney representing the family.
"They just want to give their daughter a Christian burial," Stewart said. "They're devastated. They've been without their daughter for nine months and the mere thought of the things that are having to be conducted, it's horrible."
Girolami approved a prosecution and defense agreement to release the remains after "additional limited examination," court documents show.
Stewart said the defense is holding up the release until late August in order to X-ray the remains.
Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said prosecutors are cooperating.
"My understanding is we are certainly working with the defense to reach some type of agreement," Goold said.
Outside the courthouse, Scott Peterson's parents, Lee and Jackie Peterson, said the prosecution served them Thursday with subpoenas -- advising the Petersons that they could be called as witnesses during the preliminary hearing.
Lee Peterson said the move was an attempt by the district attorney's office to stifle the couple from publicly saying their son is an innocent man grieving for his wife and child.
"I guess the Police Department and the DA's office think that's threatening to them, so they did this," he said, holding up a green subpoena. "The true purpose of this is to place us under the gag order."
The gag order forbids attorneys, witnesses and others involved in the case from making "any statement for public dissemination" regarding evidence and other key matters.
That order was at the center of another issue raised during Thursday's hearing: whether the defense team violated the order when it discussed a satanic cult theory in front of two Bee journalists.
Defense attorney Matt Dalton gave the briefing to two forensic experts, Drs. Henry Lee and Cyril Wecht, in the lobby of the state Department of Justice crime laboratory in Ripon.
Wednesday's Bee carried an article with information from the briefing. The article indicated that the defense had conducted an experiment that purportedly showed that Peterson's body could have been dropped into San Francisco Bay from a peninsula that is home to artwork described by Dalton as satanic.
Artists who helped create the work have decried that characterization and said it was "ut-terly ridiculous" to suggest that they were involved in the occult or the Peterson case. And a ritualist crimes expert has said the drawings have no connection to Satanists.
Plea from Laci's family
In a written statement issued before Thursday's hearing, Sharon Rocha and other members of Laci Peterson's family pleaded with the media to treat their daughter's death with sensitivity and respect.
"The events of this week have once again added to our daily grief as we read in the newspapers details regarding our daughter and grandson's remains and hear unnecessary graphic details when we turn on the television," the statement read. "This is our Laci and Conner whom we love with all our hearts. This is not a story this is our life."
Girolami invited the district attorney's office to begin gathering witness statements in preparation for a hearing on the possible gag order violation.
Geragos characterized the incident in court as "eavesdropping."
Bee Executive Editor Mark Vasché said he was "disappointed and distressed by Mr. Geragos' statement."
"In this case, there is no doubt whatsoever that Mr. Dalton and Drs. Lee and Wecht were aware of the presence of the two Modesto Bee journalists," Vasché said. "Before they even began discussing the case, our reporter introduced and identified himself to them. And, they willingly allowed our photographer to take several dozen images of them.
"We invite Mr. Dalton and Drs. Lee and Wecht to say what really happened."
At Geragos' request, Girolami also will consider at the same time whether District Attorney James Brazelton violated the gag order for discussing a strategic point with The Bee in June. Brazelton said then that he favored a preliminary hearing for Peterson over a grand jury indictment, as a way to counter misinformation and present evidence "that might open some eyes."
Girolami scheduled a Sept. 2 hearing to discuss evidence and forensic reports that could be introduced at the preliminary hearing.
The judge turned down a prosecution request to survey potential jurors about their attitudes toward the Peterson case in anticipation of a defense request to move the trial.
Girolami said he would reconsider the request after the preliminary hearing.
"What's the big rush?" Girolami asked. "I think it's just too premature."
Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or email@example.com.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE PETERSON FILE