Peterson: Preliminary Trial

June 29, 2003

Minds decided online

Scott Peterson might have a hard time getting a fair trial anywhere in the United States -- if jurors were chosen from people who participate in online surveys about his double-murder case.

Fifty-three percent of those responding to an unscientific survey at The Bee's Web site admitted having made up their minds about whether Peterson is guilty of killing his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner.

Of those, 96 percent said he is probably guilty or definitely guilty.

The prejudgment rates don't vary much among different regions of the United States, noted a professor who wrote the survey.

"How far do you have to move to get a fair trial? The answer: outside the United States," said Stephen Schoenthaler, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Stanislaus.

Of course, that won't happen. The law allows judges to move state trials only within that state to find unbiased jurors. And, The Bee's survey -- while perhaps interesting -- is far from scientific.

"These people are responding to something of interest to them," and don't represent a cross-section of the population, said Jo-Ellan Dimitrius. She is a jury consultant who worked on the trials of O.J. Simpson and Rodney King and has appeared as a television commentator on the Peterson case.

In the first 10 days after The Bee invited people to take the survey, nearly 7,500 people participated. That number grew to 8,370.

That response is about eight times bigger than The Bee's next-largest online survey, which measured fans' response to tunes by local bands.

It's no secret that people are fascinated with the Peterson case. Readers and viewers are fed daily doses of news, commentary and analysis in all kinds of media.

The recent survey relied only on those willing to go online and answer 29 questions about the death penalty case. It was designed to reveal bias, even among people who swear they have none.

Attorneys often use similar phone surveys to suggest whether pretrial publicity has tainted a jury pool. Peterson's lawyers have said they intend to request moving his trial when the time comes, perhaps two years down the road.

The Bee's online survey found:

Not much difference between Stanislaus County residents and some others in California in terms of people who have made up their minds about Peterson's guilt.

For instance, of respondents in San Diego County -- Peterson's home county -- who have formed opinions, 99 percent think he's guilty. In Stanislaus County, it's 95 percent.

People outside Stanislaus County were generally more knowledgeable about an array of alleged evidence in the case.

That "fixation factor," Schoen- thaler said, arises when local people with a casual interest in the case stumble on the survey while reading other parts of The Bee online. People elsewhere who are transfixed by the Peterson story sought out the survey -- and they likely have followed the case more closely.

People responding from all over the nation, and beyond.

"I just got back from New York," Dimitrius said, "and it was THE topic of conversation. Even beyond Martha Stewart, which is happening back there. It's fascinating."

Schoenthaler wrote the survey and used graduate students to conduct a scientific telephone sampling using a random dialing method. The Bee used that as the basis for the online version, producing what jury consultants call a haphazard survey.

"It's interesting and fun, but it's not scientific," said Edward J. Bronson, a jury expert whose résumé includes cases involving the Unabomber, the Oklahoma City bombing and the San Francisco dog-mauling trial. Those proceedings were moved in an attempt to find unbiased jurors.

People outside The Bee's coverage area likely would not participate in the survey unless they had specific interest in the case, Bronson and Dimitrius said.

"You get people with more extreme points of view and (they) want to take action to express that," Bronson said.

Dimitrius added that com-puter users typically are better- educated and wealthier than those who aren't. In other words, significant segments of the community were effectively excluded from the online survey.

Schoenthaler, analyzing The Bee's data, noted that the largest response in a single ZIP code came from Shively, Ky., population 15,157, and that all claimed to live in Stanislaus County. He surmised that they came from the same computer and separated them from the rest of the pack.

He also noted that the fourth-highest response in a single ZIP code came from 90210 -- Beverly Hills -- and that a majority of those respondents said they were younger than 18 years old, or ineligible to serve on a jury. That suggests a high school project, Schoenthaler said, and he tossed those answers.

After crunching numbers, some noteworthy results:

Stanislaus County respondents who have formed opinions on Peterson's guilt stood at 53.6 percent -- nearly identical to the overall mark of 53 percent.

The Beverly Hills respondents showed a not-too-different rate of 57.4 percent.

Thirty-four percent of all respondents in the survey think a defendant should prove his or her innocence. That reveals a misunderstanding of an important tenet of the American justice system: that the burden is on the government to prove someone guilty.

Twenty-three percent didn't understand that the government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt for conviction.

People with a high degree of knowledge of alleged facts in the case were much more likely to prejudge Peterson.

For example, of people who remembered that Peterson told police he went fishing in San Francisco Bay the day his pregnant wife disappeared, 58 percent prejudged him. Of the relative few who didn't know that fact, only 9 percent prejudged.

"That does not surprise me at all," Dimitrius said. She found similar results after conducting surveys in other high-profile cases.

Of people who mistakenly think defendants should prove their innocence, 71 percent had made up their minds about Peterson's guilt. And of those mis-taken about the need to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, 79 percent made up their minds.

Schoenthaler said those numbers might be depressing, but are muted by these: The first number drops to 49 percent among people who understand that the government must prove guilt, and to 44 percent for those who understand the reasonable-doubt standard.

Those adjustments help show that even among Web-surfing people fixated with the Peterson case, impartial jurors might be found, Schoenthaler said.

"In the long-term future media saturation of high-profile cases will become more typical," he predicted, "and it will become more difficult to get a fair jury. But more knowledge about the law inoculates against prejudgment.

"The solution," he said, "is simple: Educate jurors in high school."

The survey can be taken at

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or

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