Peterson not a 'reality' show

08/19/2003 7:55 AM

11/19/2007 1:40 PM

Professing a reluctance to turn the proceeding into a "reality" television show, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami on Monday banned television and still cameras from the preliminary hearing for accused double-murderer Scott Peterson.

Prosecutors are preparing to lay out closely guarded elements of their case during the hearing, sheduled for Sept. 9.

Girolami is expected to decide at the close of the hearing whether there is sufficient evidence to try the 30-year-old fertilizer salesman from Modesto.

Peterson is charged with murdering his wife, Laci, 27, and the couple's unborn son, Conner.

The case sparked intense media attention after Laci Peterson, nearly eight months pregnant, was reported missing Christmas Eve. Her body and that of her son were found in April about a mile apart along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, within miles of the spot where Scott Peterson said he launched his boat Dec. 24 for a solo fishing trip.

Peterson has pleaded innocent to two counts of murder in the deaths. He could receive the death penalty if convicted.

"As this is a death-penalty case, the court must carefully and cautiously consider the impact cameras in the courtroom may have on providing a fair trial," Girolami wrote in his six-page ruling.

Girolami suggested print media coverage had less potential to taint the jury pool.

Prospective jurors will have a more difficult time avoiding or disregarding something they have seen replayed "many times on television in living color as opposed to something they have read about a few times in black and white," Girolami wrote.

The decision came four days after the judge ruled the hearing would be open to the public.

Television networks, including CNN, Court TV and NBC, had filed almost 1,000 pages of documents in their bid to allow cameras in the courtroom.

A group of newspapers, including The Bee, had sought to have a still camera photographer cover the proceeding. Prosecutors had requested the camera ban, and members of Laci Peterson's family joined that request.

Girolami described the plea from family members as "particularly compelling."

The victims' families will be "forced to relive their worst nightmare in a very public way, which unfortunately is necessary for the process," Girolami wrote.

"Televising these passionate proceedings is not, however, necessary to the process."

Scott Peterson's defense attorneys had argued to hold the hearing behind closed doors. When Girolami denied that request last week, they asked that cameras be allowed.

Henry Schleiff, chairman and CEO of Court TV, expressed disappointment with Monday's ruling but said the network's policy is not to appeal such decisions.

"According to our Constitution, trials are meant to be public, and we believe that all citizens -- not just the print press or those few who can fit into a courtroom -- should be able to watch their judicial system in action," Schleiff said in a written statement. "We respect Judge Girolami's decision and will not contest it."

Alonzo Wickers, whose firm represents broadcast media on the issue, said he could not comment on whether other networks would appeal.

"We hope the judge will revisit the issue before a subsequent proceeding in the case," Wickers said.

In the detailed ruling, Girolami cited 18 factors he weighed in his decision, including witnesses' privacy rights, the impact on finding an unbiased jury and the effect on ongoing law enforcement activity in the case.

"Because this case remains in its earliest stages, the possibility exists that the actual perpetrator remains at large," Girolami wrote.

The judge also said television coverage would "significantly increase the odds of requiring a change of venue."

Moving the trial is "not a desirable option" and would result in considerable hardship to the witnesses and added expense to the public, Girolami wrote.

Defense attorney Mark Geragos repeatedly has said he likely will ask to have the trial moved because of intense local interest.

Jean-Paul Jassy, an attorney with Loeb & Loeb, a Los Angeles-based law firm that regularly represents media clients, said there was no basis to support the argument that television coverage would make a change of venue more likely.

"Do you really think that anybody in Stanislaus County doesn't know what's going on?" Jassy said.

He noted that O.J. Simpson was acquitted of double murder after widespread presumption of guilt and gavel-to-gavel television coverage of the trial.

"This is reality, and the public deserves to know what happens in its courtrooms," Jassy said. "It would only be a show if the judge could not control his courtroom, but I'm sure that's not the case here."

Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or jcote@modbee.com.

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