Peterson: Preliminary Trial

November 6, 2003

Delay stretches hearing: LA case ties up Peterson lawyer

Scott Peterson's preliminary hearing on double-murder charges was postponed Wednesday because defense attorney Mark Geragos remained in Los Angeles to address legal issues in a murder trial there.

The hearing is set to resume at 9:30 a.m. today in Stanislaus County Superior Court, with Modesto police Detective Al Brocchini due to take the witness stand. Brocchini is at the center of a defense effort to try to show that evidence was mishandled and possibly planted.

Before Wednesday's delay, Peterson's hearing had already run the five days that prosecutors originally estimated it would last. It is now expected to stretch into next week.

Perhaps the most anticipated witness yet to testify, Fresno massage therapist Amber Frey, may not take the stand until Wednesday. Frey, 28, was Peterson's girlfriend at the time of his wife's disappearance.

The 31-year-old Peterson is accused in the deaths of his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

His preliminary hearing has crept along, bogged down by technical testimony about a disputed DNA test and most recently by Geragos' absence.

More than 40 journalists from across the country had gathered in Modesto Wednesday morning to hear Brocchini testify. Scott Peterson's parents appeared in court, but none of Laci Peterson's family was present.

While some Peterson onlookers grumbled that Geragos may be stalling, legal observers said it is not unusual for a defense attorney to have a preliminary hearing starting quickly on the heels of another trial.

"Attorneys do this all the time, juggle their schedules," said Laurie Levenson, a law professor and director of Loyola Law School's Center for Ethical Advocacy. "It's harder when they're in two different counties and you're commuting."

Darrell Mavis, the Los Angeles prosecutor lined up against Geragos, said he was scheduled to start a triple-murder trial two days after closing arguments in the ongoing case, but reached a plea deal in the second case.

Levenson said the timing in the Los Angeles trial, where the jury was deliberating and apparently stuck on legal issues, was a significant factor.

Some of the questions in that case are about the difference between a heat-of-passion killing and murder, a legal distinction that involves widely different sentence lengths, attorneys in the case said.

Geragos represents Karen Terteryan, 21, who faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of murder with a street-gang enhancement.

Prosecutors contend that Terteryan and Rafael Gevorgyan, 18, fatally beat and stabbed a high school senior, Raul Aguirre, when he intervened in a fight.

The judge in the case took the unusual step Tuesday of reopening arguments to address the jury questions after six days of deliberation.

The jury continued deliberating, and left Wednesday without reaching a verdict.

Levenson said responding to the juror questions was a crucial point in the case.

"It's fairly clear what the jury is focused on," she said. "You have to address their concerns now or there will be no tomorrow."

The situation with Peterson's preliminary hearing is different, she said.

Peterson is entitled to a preliminary hearing in an expeditious manner, Levenson said, but added the "more immediate need" appeared to be in Los Angeles.

"For the Peterson case, now is a very important time, but there is more flexibility," she said.

At a defense request, Judge Al Girolami initially delayed the start in Wednesday's session until 2:30 p.m. to give Geragos time to fly into Sacramento and then drive to Modesto. Then, at 11:22 a.m., Girolami canceled the entire day's proceedings after Pat Harris, an attorney from Geragos' firm, said Geragos would not be back until today.

The delays have extended the projected stay of television news crews headquartered at the site the future Gallo Arts Center.

The networks had an agreement with the county to lease the site through Friday for $15,000. Because of the delays, the county extended the lease one week at no charge.

Stan Risen, a senior management consultant with the county, said during original negotiations that the intent was to reach a deal for the duration of the hearing.

"At this point we felt it would be appropriate just to extend it," Risen said. The delay will not impact the center's construction schedule, he said.

Modesto police were putting together revised projections for the cost of extra officers outside the courthouse, a generator for TV crews and other city expenses arising from the preliminary hearing that the police intend to pass on to media companies.

Those projections will be discussed with media representatives today, said Leslie Rodriguez, who manages permits and licensing issues for the Police Department.

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

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