Tale of two cases has media in common

07/03/2003 9:00 AM

11/20/2007 6:41 AM

The cases are on opposite sides of the country, and the circumstances surrounding the murder charges are clearly different.

But Scott Peterson and accused Washington-area sniper Lee Malvo have at least one thing in common: Their cases have drawn media swarms.

A Fairfax County, Va., judge decided Wednesday to move Malvo's trial about 200 miles away, citing the pretrial publicity and noting that the attacks terrorized the local population.

Peterson's defense attorney, Mark Ger- agos, has said previously he likely will pursue a change of venue for his client, who is accused of murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, who was to be named Conner.

Although the circumstances behind moving the Malvo case are largely different than those in the Peterson matter, both cases have similar legal undercurrents, experts said Wednesday.

"The biggest difference in the sniper case is people were in direct fear," said Edward J. Bronson, a change-of-venue specialist from Chico who has worked on the

Unabomber, Oklahoma City bombing and San Francisco dog-mauling trials.

"(Potential jurors) themselves were worried they might be victims," Bronson said. "I don't think that was true in the Peterson case."

But potential jurors did have another type of direct involvement in the Peterson case, he said.

Thousands of volunteers searched parks, stream beds and fields for the pregnant Modesto woman in the weeks after she was reported missing Christmas Eve. Laci Peterson's infectious smile adorned posters that blanketed Modesto. An estimated 3,000 people turned out for her memorial service.

"Laci became sort of a surrogate daughter, mother, friend of everybody in that community," Bronson said. "The two cases, while certainly different in many major ways, share the kind of common theme that they were dominant and gave rise to beliefs and fears, some true, some false, that make it difficult for people to serve as jurors."

Both cases have also triggered strong, albeit different, emo- tional reactions in their respective communities, said Stephen Schoenthaler, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Stanislaus.

"Malvo and his associate allegedly were not only killing adults, but also children, and doing it at random," Schoenthaler said. "The greatest fear is when a person could become a victim. Here, the depth of emotion is different. It's not led by fear, it's led by great anger over what happened to a defenseless woman and child.

"Both are strong emotions, and strong emotions make it very difficult for people to be impartial."

The key factor in determining a change of venue is whether potential jurors have made a decision on guilt or innocence before hearing the evidence, said Jo- Ellan Dimitrius, a jury consultant from Los Angeles who worked on the trials of O.J. Simpson, Rodney King and "Nightstalker" Richard Ramirez.

In that respect, the Malvo and Peterson's cases were similar, she said.

"People have predisposed themselves to believe the defendants in both these cases are guilty," Dimitrius said.

Even so, the prejudgment rate could be higher elsewhere in the state, and other factors can work against defendants if trials are moved, Dimitrius said.

"Sometimes you're better off in the county were you started," said Rory Little, a professor at Hastings College of the Law and a former federal prosecutor who saw very little similarity between the two cases. "If you're a white male, and you want white males on your jury pool, you may want to stay in Modesto."

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


THE PETERSON FILE

ALLRED DEMANDS RETRACTION -- Celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, hired to protect the reputation of potential witness Amber Frey in the Scott Peterson double- murder case, sent a letter to the Los Angeles Times on Wednesday demanding "an immediate and prominent retraction."

In a column published Wednesday, Tim Rutten referred to topless photographs of Frey being shopped to adult magazines and wrote, "Her reported asking price is $100,000." Problem is, Frey no longer owns rights to the photos and hopes to block their dissemination.

"They never called me," Allred said of the Times.

"It's totally false."

Frey has said she was romantically involved with Scott Peterson without knowing he was married, shortly before his pregnant wife, Laci Peterson, was reported missing on Christmas Eve. Scott Peterson could face the death penalty if convicted of murdering his wife and their unborn son.

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