Scott Peterson could wait in jail for a more than two years before he goes to trial on charges that he murdered his pregnant wife.
And the people watching from across the nation and abroad would have to wait as well.
Long delays between arrest and trial are common in homicide cases, especially when the prosecution seeks the death penalty, as in the Peterson case.
In that interim, the two sides spend their time dissecting police reports, doing further witness interviews and evidence analysis and, if necessary, having the defendant's mental status evaluated.
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"Any time you're dealing with something where the penalty could be somebody's life, both sides want to make sure they get it right," said Bruce Perry, a criminal defense attorney in Modesto.
"It's just a matter of getting all the discovery together," said John Goold, chief deputy district attorney for Stanislaus County. "It's also a matter of all the motions people bring, especially in death-penalty cases."
Peterson's attorneys already have vowed to disprove charges that he killed his wife, Laci, who was pregnant with their son, Conner, when she was reported missing from their Modesto home on Christmas Eve.
Defense attorney Mark Geragos publicly called Friday for witnesses to come forward, saying he believes at least one young woman has information that Laci Peterson was abducted and murdered.
"We have extremely credible information that we are following up on," Geragos said.
The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees a "speedy" trial, which in California means starting within 60 days of arraignment. For Peterson, that would mean going to trial by June 20, but that looks highly unlikely.
Criminal defense attorneys said they often advise their clients to waive the right to a speedy trial so the case can be properly prepared -- even if it means sitting in jail for months or years.
"It just takes a lot of time to do what you have to do," said Modesto attorney Robert Chase, "so a typical murder case is hard to get to trial in less than a year, and it's a lot longer if the death penalty is involved."
Not all trials are delayed
Trials do come fast in some homicide cases. Ellie Nesler of Sonora was arrested in April 1993 on suspicion of killing a man accused of molesting her son, and the trial was under way by July.
On the other hand, 3 1/2 years passed between the arrest and trial of Jerry Lane Davis, accused of killing a woman in the Vintage Faire Mall parking lot in 1996.
Pretrial hearings can be widely spaced if the attorneys and judge are swamped with other cases.
At one point in the Davis case, the judge set a trial date 14 months in the future. At another point, the defense attorney got six extra months for preparation because, among other things, he had to deal with the aftermath of a fire at his house.
Even a fairly routine theft or drug case might take a few months to go to trial, as the two sides make various motions on admissibility of evidence and other matters.
Murder, with the prospect of a long prison sentence or execution, stretches things out even more.
"In a robbery case, you might have a police report that's 20 pages long," Perry said. "In a murder case, it might be 2,000 pages long."
Defense attorneys said they sometimes have trouble getting those reports quickly. Once in hand, they might have blood, fibers or other evidence re-examined. They might interview witnesses who had talked with police at the time of the alleged crime.
Two things to prepare for
In a death-penalty case, the defense has to prepare along two tracks. One is the defense against the murder charge. The other is the argument for sparing the client's life in the event of a conviction.
That second defense, which usually must be ready to present soon after conviction, could include testimony from family and friends about the defendant's personality and accomplishments. An attorney also might compile evidence that the defendant was, for example, abused as a child or suffering from a mental illness that prompted the crime.
"In the penalty phase, we're allowed to present just about anything that might be mitigating, and that opens up a whole lot of things that we might not present in a typical murder case," said Tim Bazar, public defender for Stanislaus County.
Robert Wildman, a Modesto criminal defense attorney, recalled digging up medical records showing that a client suffered brain damage when hit by a car at age 2.
"You've got to go through and rebuild their whole life," he said.
The prosecution, meanwhile, has to back its own arguments with evidence and testimony -- and counter what the defense might bring forward.
"You don't want to rush anything to judgment without investigating everything that needs to be investigated," Goold said.
Attorneys said all that work also helps guard against a conviction or sentence being overturned on appeal.
Chase said defense attorneys are especially careful because the State Bar looks unfavorably on lawyers found to have provided "ineffective" defense in a capital case.
In cases where murder defendants are eventually acquitted by juries, the long delays between arrest and trial can mean being jailed for a year or more for no good reason.
People in that position could sue the prosecutors for damages, Bazar said, but they must show that they were the victim of "reckless disregard for the truth or active fraud." He added that he has never been involved in a case where that happened.
"Generally," he said, " I would say the client is just glad to be out."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at 667-1227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.