Peterson Losing in Court of Public Opinion

Hank Plante

Watch the complete story Friday at 5pm on Channel 5.

Scott Peterson's new defense team has barely hit the courtroom, but they already have a major problem in the court of public opinion.

A new Channel 5 Poll reveals just how serious Peterson's image problem is. Of the eligible jurors we contacted, 83% in the Bay Area said they already believe Peterson is guilty or probably guilty. More importantly, in the Central Valley, which includes his hometown of Modesto, eight out of ten people felt same way.

"There is already such an overwhelming presumption of guilt right now," said Lois Heaney of the National Jury Project, which provides defense teams with detailed research on everything from what the public thinks about their client to the best bet for a change of venue.

Heaney says the opinions about Peterson's guilt remind her of research she did in the case of Richard Allen Davis when he was on trial for the murder of Polly Klaas.

But if all those potential jurors have been watching television coverage for months, what can Peterson's lawyers do? Legal experts say they've already begun making some of the right moves, like getting him out of handcuffs and into a suit, and getting his family out to proclaim his innocence. Those moves are aimed at the 35% who believed it was too soon to form a personal opinion of Peterson himself.

And like the OJ Simpson trial, Peterson's lawyers are already attacking the evidence and the investigators themselves. Criminal defense specialist Tony Tamburello believes alternative theories of how the murder happened can also convince people to reserve judgement.

"I don't think anybody knows the facts," Tamburello said. "Maybe he can come up with something."

At this point, defense experts believe a change of venue is probably a given. But wherever the Peterson trial ends up, the stakes could literally be life or death. More than half the people in our survey believe Laci Peterson's death was a case of premeditated murder, and that if Scott Peterson is convicted, he should receive the death penalty.

May 8, 2003