Peterson case comes back to light this week


By John Ritter, USA TODAY

SAN FRANCISCO Almost from the moment Laci Peterson vanished, police and the public fingered her husband, Scott. When Laci's body and her unborn son's washed up in San Francisco Bay four months later, he was charged with a crime that had become a national fixation.

Even California Attorney General Bill Lockyer fueled the widespread belief that Scott Peterson was guilty by calling the case a "slam dunk."

Now comes Peterson's first chance to punch holes in that perception.

At a preliminary hearing beginning Wednesday in Modesto, the public gets its first look at how prosecutors will try to tie the former fertilizer salesman to a double murder.

His lawyers will try to persuade Judge Al Girolami to throw out key evidence investigators obtained from wiretaps, bloodhounds, hypnosis, DNA analysis and tracking by global positioning systems.

The Peterson case has always been more than just another brutal domestic crime.

Its titillating details sucked America in: the attractive mother-to-be missing on Christmas Eve, the tight-knit community's anguished search, the stunning revelation that her husband had been having an affair, his lawyers' theory that a Satanic cult was involved and fresh allegations from a jail inmate in Fresno that Scott had tried to hire neo-Nazi gangsters to kill his wife.

"It's got a lot of human intrigue," says Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola University in Los Angeles. "But the main reason it's gotten so much attention is that you had a whole community that spent their Christmas dinner looking for Laci Peterson, a whole community invested in this case.

"It became a cause celebre ."

Legal experts say the preliminary hearing could preview battles at Peterson's trial next year.

Look for his lead lawyer, Mark Geragos, to try to discredit the police investigation and maybe float other scenarios of how Laci died.

He may try to lock in the testimony of prosecution witnesses, hoping later to show inconsistencies with their trial testimony.

"Usually the defense uses these hearings as a chance to learn and to probe," says Erwin Chemerinsky, a University of Southern California law professor.

Assistant District Attorney David Harris is expected to present little more than a bare-bones case, enough to persuade the judge to hold Peterson for trial. Peterson was denied bail and has been in jail since April. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Few details have leaked

Little of the prosecution case has leaked because of a gag order Girolami slapped on both sides.

But from court papers and other sources it's known that investigators searched the Petersons' house, vehicles and computers, seized articles, tapped his phones, kept track of his whereabouts with GPS technology and interviewed potential witnesses, including the woman he was having an affair with, Amber Frey.

Prosecutors also have autopsies from Laci and her fetus's decomposed remains, discovered a mile apart and near where Scott said he was fishing on Christmas Eve.

Authorities have not announced a cause of death, and there's speculation it won't ever be known.

The case's only noteworthy leak came from an autopsy report that Laci's child had a cut on his chest and plastic tape looped around his neck.

But as the Kobe Bryant rape case shows, nothing at a preliminary hearing is a sure bet.

Before Bryant was to appear in a Colorado courtroom three weeks ago, experts had predicted that the Los Angeles Lakers star's lawyer might waive the hearing altogether to keep intimate details from becoming public until a trial.

Instead, she aggressively challenged the prosecution's case and tried to establish that Bryant's accuser had a promiscuous sex life. Bryant was ordered last week to stand trial.

Peterson's eventual trial could bear little resemblance to the preliminary hearing.

In the O.J. Simpson double murder case, for example, much of the hearing testimony centered on a knife that was the alleged murder weapon.

"By the time the trial rolled around, the knife had totally disappeared from the case," says Gerald Uelmen, a Santa Clara University law professor who argued pre-trial evidence motions for Simpson's defense.

Simpson's lawyers also maneuvered the prosecution into revealing most of its case at the preliminary hearing. That allowed the defense to shape a counterstrategy.

"I would hope the prosecution has learned the lessons of the O.J. case, which is, if they put too much in the preliminary hearing, it can only hurt them," Levenson says.

The Simpson case had no gag order and the media circus that evolved over leaks in the case is why many celebrated cases since then including Peterson's have had them, experts say.

The judge also may believe that a successful gag order will keep the jury pool unpolluted and thwart a defense move for a change of venue in the case.

Peterson's defense team includes Henry Lee, a forensic pathologist who has testified in many high-profile cases, including in Simpson's defense.

"The defense wants to offer alternative explanations for physical evidence, and when you have Henry Lee, you have the best there is," Chemerinsky says.

Defense strategy

Scott Thornsley, a criminal justice professor at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pa., says: "Henry Lee's presence will raise eyebrows among those who thought this was open and shut."

Richard Herman, a criminal defense lawyer in Modesto who is not involved in the case, thinks the defense will try to show that the fetus was older when it died than it was when Laci Peterson disappeared. That would support a kidnapping theory and potentially exonerate Scott.

"It we have an older fetus, the game is over," Herman says.

In defense motions, Geragos argues that GPS tracking and DNA analysis, using a newer method than what has been standard practice in criminal cases, are unreliable technologies in a murder investigation.

The newer DNA method was used to analyze cells from tissue samples that can't be analyzed by the standard method.

He argues that police ignored proper procedures for taking statements from a witness under hypnosis.

Prosecutors said last week they won't use testimony from the hypnotized witness at the hearing but may later.

Also at issue is potential evidence from a dog used to track Laci after she disappeared.

Police reportedly used a bloodhound named Merlin to try to retrace her movements.

But Geragos argues that California courts have allowed evidence from tracking dogs only involving searches for suspects not victims.

Geragos also challenges a sample of hair, reportedly Laci's, found on a pair of pliers in Scott's boat.

In court papers, the lawyer says police found a single hair, but two detectives who later reviewed the sample reported a second hair.

He'll contend "they're pulling an O.J. on that," Levenson says, referring to allegations that Los Angeles police planted evidence in that case.

The defense won't win all those motions, but "there's a great benefit to just getting out to the court and potential jurors that this evidence isn't as good as people thought," Levenson says.