Court's gag order violated?


Last Updated: August 15, 2003, 05:02:20 AM PDT

Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami called for an inquiry into a possible gag order violation in the Scott Peterson case, one day after The Bee ran a story detailing elements of the defense team's investigation.
The inquiry is listed on the agenda for a court hearing scheduled for today. The hearing is likely to be dominated by arguments about closing Peterson's preliminary hearing, slated for Sept. 9, to the public.

Peterson, 30, is charged with two counts of murder in the deaths of his wife, Laci, 27, and the couple's unborn son, Conner. He has pleaded not guilty.

The hearing agenda, issued Wednesday, does not specify why the judge is looking into a possible defense violation of the gag order.

Wednesday's Bee carried a story indicating that the defense had conducted an experiment which purportedly showed that Laci Peterson's body could have been dropped into San Francisco Bay from a peninsula that features artwork described by a defense attorney as satanic.

This information came to light as Matt Dalton, an attorney with lead defense counsel Mark Geragos' law firm, briefed forensic experts in the presence of a Bee reporter and photographer on Tuesday.

Dalton spoke with Drs. Henry Lee and Cyril Wecht in the lobby at the state Department of Justice lab in Ripon as members of Peterson's defense team waited to get access to prosecution evidence.

The briefing moved outside after defense investigator Bill Pavelic entered the lobby and suggested that Dalton relocate because members of the media were present.

The gag order forbids attorneys and others involved in the case from making "any statement for public dissemination" regarding evidence and other key matters.

Girolami already has indicated that he will conduct a hearing after the trial to determine whether District Attorney James Brazelton violated the gag order for telling The Bee in June that he favors a preliminary hearing over a grand jury indictment to counter misinformation and present evidence "that might open some eyes."

Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said prosecutors are waiting to see how the judge approaches the latest gag order issue before considering asking for sanctions against the defense.

"I think we're going to have to see what the court wants to talk about tomorrow and deal with it then," Goold said.

The defense contends that police mistakenly targeted Peterson, and it is floating theories that the perpetrator of the slayings is involved in a satanic cult or is a serial killer.

Peterson has said he returned from a daylong fishing trip Christmas Eve and found his wife missing from their Modesto home.

Peterson has told police that he launched his 14-foot aluminum boat from the Berkeley Marina, then went fishing for sturgeon off Brooks Island.

The peninsula with the artwork is between the marina and Point Isabel, where Laci Peterson's body was found in April. Her son's body was found about a mile away in south Richmond.

Defense attorneys have cited the massive media attention around the case in asking Girolami to close Peterson's preliminary hearing, when prosecutors are expected to lay out closely guarded evidence.

The defense maintains that the inevitable media attention would taint jurors and jeopardize Peterson's right to a fair trial.

Prosecutors are in favor of an open hearing, but have joined Laci Peterson's family in asking the judge to bar cameras from the courtroom.

Cameras would "thrust nervous and unwilling victims, witnesses and others into the glaring media spotlight" and turn the trial into "entertainment for the masses," according to prosecution court filings.

Media attorneys have noted that open court proceedings are an integral part of the legal system and guard against potential abuse by judges or prosecutors.

Attorneys representing a group of TV networks also contend that cameras have had a negligible impact on trials where they were allowed.

Girolami also will consider a prosecution request to survey Stanislaus County residents called in for jury duty in an attempt to gauge whether it is necessary to move Peterson's trial. Prosecutors are asking to conduct the surveys in two other California counties.

Prosecutors also filed documents Wednesday saying they strictly followed state and fed- eral law when administering two wiretaps on Peterson's phones.

The documents counter defense contentions that the law police relied on is unconstitutional and take issue with "inflammatory and personal" attacks in defense filings.

"(The prosecution) will not respond in kind to such provocation," Senior Deputy District Attorney Rick Distaso wrote.

Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or