Judge issues gag order in Peterson
Warrants likely to be unsealed under 2nd ruling
Henry K. Lee, Chronicle
Friday, June 13, 2003
The judge overseeing the double-murder case against Scott Peterson barred attorneys and police Thursday from discussing the case, while another judge ruled that search warrants filed in support of Peterson's arrest should be unsealed next month.
Judge Al Girolami of Stanislaus County Superior Court, citing the "massive" media interest in the case, ordered defense attorneys, prosecutors, police and potential witnesses from sharing their opinions with reporters or releasing any evidence.
"Besides extensive local television and radio coverage, the national television media has embraced this case with a passion, providing frequent commentaries from notables like Larry King, Geraldo Rivera and Katie Couric," Girolami wrote in his six-page ruling.
In issuing the gag order, the judge noted that even Peterson's lead attorney, Mark Geragos of Los Angeles, regularly discussed the case on cable news programs before he was retained to defend Peterson on charges of murdering his wife, Laci, and their unborn son.
Girolami said he had considered "less restrictive alternatives" that would ensure Peterson's right to a fair trial, including asking for a change of venue and questioning potential jurors extensively.
"A change of venue and extensive voir dire are not especially helpful in this case because of the exceptional amount of publicity which has been broadcast throughout this state and country," Girolami wrote.
But Judge Roger Beauchesne of Stanislaus County Superior Court disagreed in a separate ruling earlier Thursday, saying the intense coverage did not warrant keeping key court documents in the case sealed.
Eight warrants -- including affidavits outlining probable cause for Peterson's arrest and an inventory of items seized by Modesto police -- should be released now that he is in custody, Beauchesne said. Peterson has pleaded not guilty.
The ruling does not cover the arrest warrant affidavit or autopsy reports, which remain sealed and are under the jurisdiction of the other judge.
Beauchesne, who is handling civil matters in the case, called the continued sealing of the pre-arrest documents "unjustified." But he postponed the release of the papers until July 8, the day after a final ruling by an appeals court is due.
Beauchesne said his review "fails to produce additional evidence to justify sealing."
Peterson is in custody, and no other suspects are under investigation, Beauchesne said. The judge had sealed the documents before Peterson's April 18 arrest on the grounds that he didn't want any potential suspect to be alerted.
Beauchesne had ordered the documents released after Peterson's arrest. But an appeals court, agreeing with prosecutors, said an arrest did not automatically mean that the court papers should be unsealed.
Only a "change in circumstances" could warrant their release, the appeals court ruled. On Thursday, Beauchesne found that such a change occurred with Peterson's arrest.
The gag order will apply to potential witnesses such as Amber Frey, the massage therapist who came forward in January to say she and Scott Peterson had been having an affair before Laci Peterson disappeared.
Frey's attorney, Gloria Allred, said Thursday that she did not appear to fall under the gag order and could continue to defend her client's reputation.