Peterson trial is moved to Peninsula
Murder case could begin Monday in Redwood City


Henry K. Lee and Kelly St. John, Chronicle Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Modesto -- Scott Peterson's trial on charges of killing his pregnant wife and unborn son will be held in San Mateo County, a judge ruled Tuesday, as one of the most intensively publicized murder cases since the prosecution of O.J. Simpson could begin Monday in Redwood City.

Judge Al Girolami of the Stanislaus County Superior Court said San Mateo County had ample room and security to accommodate the case -- and the expected media horde.

"I can't think of any other case except maybe the O.J . Simpson case that will rival this one in so far as media coverage and onlookers. It's going to be challenging," said Bronwyn Hogan, spokeswoman for the San Mateo County Sheriff's Department. "Security for the inmate and the public, that's our primary focus."

Girolami, who earlier this month decided to move the trial out of Modesto, added that San Mateo County, 90 miles to the west, had been far less exposed to the intense media coverage that has surrounded the case since Peterson's pregnant wife, Laci, 27, went missing on Christmas Eve 2002.

"I'm satisfied that we can get a fair and impartial jury in San Mateo County," Girolami said. "They are close and ready to proceed."

Girolami rejected two other Bay Area counties, Alameda and Santa Clara, as trial venues, saying Alameda needed time to make courtroom renovations and that a Santa Clara courtroom wasn't immediately available.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George is expected today to appoint the judge who will preside over the case. Girolami has presided over the case since Peterson's arrest in San Diego in April, days after the bodies of his wife and son washed ashore in Richmond.

The county's largest courtroom in Redwood City -- that of Judge Quentin Kopp -- seats 130 people and officials are prepared for Peterson to be transferred almost immediately to the county jail across the street, Hogan said.

Peterson, 31, has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.

Mark Geragos, Peterson's lead defense attorney, refused to waive his client's right to a speedy trial Tuesday, saying he was ready for pre-trial motions to begin as early as Monday, followed by jury selection. But prosecutors asked for two weeks to move their staff and materials to San Mateo County. Attorneys will return to court in Modesto on Friday to work out a more precise schedule.

San Mateo County, population 717,000, has seen its share of infamous trials.

In 1990, a Redwood City jury convicted Ramon Salcido of the murders of seven people in Sonoma County -- including his wife and two children. Salcido, a former winery worker whose trial was moved because of extensive publicity, was sentenced to death.

The county was also the site of a trial of the notorious "Billionaire Boys' Club," a cult-like investment group of wealthy young men run by Joe Hunt. In 1988, a San Mateo jury convicted two of the club's members of second-degree murder, kidnapping and conspiracy in the death of one of the men's fathers during a failed extortion plot. Hunt, who was already serving a life sentence for another murder, was tried in San Mateo for that same crime in 1992. That case ended in a mistrial.

Defense attorneys who practice in San Mateo County said Peterson can expect to be tried by a highly-educated, somewhat conservative panel of jurors.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the county developed a reputation as a "hanging county" where juries returned death verdicts in every capital case brought before them. But that reputation has changed in the last five years, said Charles Robinson, a criminal attorney who has defended 20 murder cases. Robinson is now assistant administrator of San Mateo's private defender program.

"The jury pool in San Mateo is tough. Although we're a fairly liberal county, the jury pools are a little conservative in terms of law and order. And I think the reason is there are no urban areas here. It's all suburban," Robinson said.

Criminal defense attorney Jeff Boyarsky said that he lost two death penalty cases in the 1980s, but in recent years several juries have decided to spare the lives of defendants in capital cases.

Typical jurors in San Mateo County are college-educated or have graduate degrees, Boyarsky said. "There are a lot of people in the computer industry, like engineers and consultants. A lot of professional people, and teachers," he said. "It's a question of which side thinks that highly-educated jurors are going to favor their particular presentation."

"I love San Mateo!" Geragos said outside court. "If I had to be anywhere in Northern California, San Mateo County is a good place to be."

Geragos, whose office is in Los Angeles, had urged Girolami to reconsider Orange County, noting it would be convenient for Peterson's parents, Lee and Jackie, who live in San Diego. Jackie Peterson, who carries an oxygen tank, is awaiting a transplant, said Geragos, who did not elaborate.

But the judge rejected Orange County, which had been suggested by the state court system's administrative office, saying it was not within driving distance from Modesto.

Girolami also rebuffed efforts by Deputy District Attorney David Harris to keep the case in Stanislaus or Sacramento County on the basis that a survey supervised by a local professor may have been fabricated by some of his students.

The survey, showing that Peterson has better odds of getting a fair trial outside Stanislaus County, "entered very little" in Girolami's final decision to move trial out of Modesto compared to local media coverage, the judge said.