Two nationally recognized experts agreed Wednesday that numbers from a local survey suggest little chance of Scott Peterson getting a fair trial in Modesto.
"I don't think you need to be a social scientist to say that," said Edward J. Bronson, whose resumé includes cases involving the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bombing and the San Francisco dog-mauling trial. All of those proceedings were moved in an attempt to find un-biased jurors.
But Bronson and Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, who worked on the trials of O.J. Simpson, Rodney King and "Nightstalker" Richard Ramirez, agree that such a survey would be more valuable closer to the time of trial.
Peterson, 30, has pleaded not guilty in the killings of his 27-year-old wife, Laci, and their unborn son. His attorneys reaffirmed in court documents filed Wednesday that they intend to seek a change of venue and move proceedings to another county.
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Prosecutors, meanwhile, have said they would oppose moving the trial.
It could take two years or more to bring the case to trial.
Results of a survey coordinated by Stephen Schoenthaler, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Stanislaus, were released Tuesday. They show that 75 percent of respondents in Stanislaus County have made up their minds about Peterson's guilt, compared with 54 percent in Los Angeles County.
Dimitrius said prosecutors would be unwise to go along with any suggestion of moving the trial to Los Angeles. That's the home base of Peterson's lead defense attorney, Mark Geragos, she noted.
A better option might be Orange County, noted for its conservative bent -- a reputation similar to Stanislaus County, she and Bronson said.
Both pretrial-publicity experts said a standard poll surveys 400 people, while Schoenthaler's talked to only 150 in Stanislaus County and 80 in Los Angeles County.
The difference is a margin of error of 5 percent with 400 respondents, growing to 8 percent with 150 people and to 11 percent with 80 people.
But, Bronson said, he rarely sees much change when comparing results from surveying 80 people with those surveying 400 people. Drawing a blood sample of a few cubic centimeters, for example, produces about the same results as from a pint, he said.
Schoenthaler said judges commonly agree to move a trial if a survey shows that more than 35 percent of respondents have already made up their minds about guilt. Dimitrius disagreed, saying 50 percent is marginal, while 65 percent and more is quite convincing.
Bronson, noting Schoenthaler's 75 percent finding, said, "When you get to numbers like that, it really doesn't matter." He noted that he doesn't lightly recommend moving trials; in fact, he has advised against changes of venue 124 times in 20 years.
Those include the Stanislaus County trials of Jerry Lane Davis, who shot a woman in the Vintage Faire Mall parking lot, and Scott Fizzell, who stabbed a woman to death in her north Modesto home.
Other states have much different standards.
Craig Cooley, a Virginia attorney representing an accused teen-age sniper in the highly publicized case near Washington, D.C., recently fought to have that trial moved from Fairfax County. No change-of-venue motion has succeeded there in 30 years.
"It's an extraordinarily rare situation," Cooley said Wednesday. The judge in his case is reviewing his request and is expected to rule in a few days.
Surveys common in California are "not generally an effective tool" in Virginia, said Cooley, who has worked 60 death penalty cases in 26 years.
Dimitrius said prosecutors in California who fight against moving trials often attack such surveys by calling methodology into question.
Schoenthaler, who has produced 24 surveys for felony cases, said he would welcome either side conducting its own surveys to compare with his. "That would undoubtedly only confirm the accuracy of this survey," he said.
Surveys of potential jurors, however, aren't all that important to a judge's final decision on whether to move a trial, Schoen-thaler said.
Much more important, according to case law, are the nature and extent of publicity and the nature and gravity of the crime, he said. Both factors work heavily in Peterson's favor to move the trial, Schoenthaler said.
Lesser factors include the size of the county -- counties larger than Stanislaus sometimes are considered OK for high-profile cases -- and the reputations of both victim and accused. All point to moving the Peterson trial, Schoenthaler said, calling Laci Peterson a "posthumous celebrity" and saying Scott Peterson "has become an unwelcome outsider."
Dimitrius -- who has appeared on national television programs commenting on the Peterson case -- and Bronson agreed that media coverage has been extensive.
Dimitrius said her firm conducts text analysis on articles, using computers to see how reporters and pundits describe a defendant, perhaps establishing sensationalism that could taint a jury pool.
She said doing another survey closer to the trial would make sense. "I would argue with some comfort that attitudes do change," she said.
Said Bronson: "Memories can fade, but I don't think that's going to happen in Modesto in this case."
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or firstname.lastname@example.org.