Prosecutors Remove Judge In Laci Peterson Murder Case
Attorneys Argue Judge Is Biased


POSTED: 11:10 am PST January 21, 2004
UPDATED: 7:55 pm PST January 22, 2004

MODESTO, Calif. -- Prosecutors exercised their ability Thursday to remove the judge from Scott Peterson's trial in the killings of his wife and unborn son, saying he was biased against them.

Judge Richard Arnason, an 82-year-old retired judge with a reputation for his fatherly demeanor that has won him hugs from felons and letters from prisoners, was challenged by prosecutors in a maneuver that automatically guarantees his removal -- and a delay in the case.

Deputy District Attorney Rick Distaso filed the challenge in Stanislaus County Superior Court the day after Arnason was appointed to oversee the high-profile trial when it is moved to San Mateo County.

In a 56-word declaration, Distaso said Arnason "is prejudiced against the interest of the party, so that I believe I cannot have a fair and impartial hearing."

Prosecutors refused to elaborate on their reason for removing the judge, said a receptionist in the Stanislaus County District Attorney's office. Peterson's defense lawyer did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

The peremptory challenge did not require that prosecutors show cause and automatically removes the judge from the case. Each side in the case gets one challenge.

The tactical move will postpone the case that was scheduled to start Monday because it will take a few days to find a new judge, said Lynn Holton, spokeswoman for the state's court administration.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George said it would take until next week to find another judge qualified to handle the case, Holton said.

A hearing is scheduled Friday in Modesto to discuss the transfer to a courthouse in Redwood City and future court dates.

Arnason was selected Wednesday by George, in part because of his experience handling major trials. Court officials opted for a retired judge to hear the six-month case to avoid slowing down other trials.

Peterson, 31, faces the death penalty if convicted of two counts of murder for allegedly killing his pregnant wife, Laci, just before Christmas 2002 and dumping her body in San Francisco Bay. In April, her remains and those of the fetus washed ashore two miles from where her husband said he was fishing on Christmas Eve when she vanished.

The case is being moved after a Modesto judge ruled Peterson could not easily get a fair trial in his dead wife's hometown, where extensive publicity elevated Laci Peterson to a celebrity and earned the former fertilizer salesman notoriety.

Arnason had presided over several prominent cases, including the politically charged trial of black militant Angela Davis, which he took after five other judges either withdrew or were disqualified.

The black radical ultimately was acquitted of murder and conspiracy in a 1970 Marin County courthouse escape attempt by detainees that resulted in the deaths of four people, including a judge.

Attorney Howard Moore Jr., who represented Davis in the case, said he was surprised by the Stanislaus County prosecutor's move. A day earlier, he had praised the selection of Arnason and said both sides would get a fair shake from the seasoned jurist.

"Anytime the prosecution can't go with any judge in the house it says something about their case," Moore said.

Arnason also handled Hells Angels murder trials and the case of a woman whose 13-year-old daughter weighed 680 pounds when she died of congestive heart failure in 1996.

A bailiff in the Contra Costa County courtroom where Arnason is presiding over a trial said the judge would not comment about his removal from the Peterson case.

The challenge by prosecutors Thursday was not the first time they've had a judge removed in the case.

Before Peterson's arrest in April, another prosecutor used a similar motion to remove Judge Al Girolami from deciding whether to unseal search warrants used in the investigation.

Despite being removed from that aspect of the case, Girolami was on track to be the trial judge until he ordered the transfer Tuesday and said he would not make the trip to San Mateo County Superior Court.

Holton said the prosecutor's removal of the judge in the search warrant case did not count as their one challenge because it was a different matter.

Peterson's attorney, Mark Geragos, said he believes jury selection will begin the third week of February.

Peterson's lawyers argued that he had been demonized in the Modesto area, citing vandalism of his house, crowds yelling "Murderer!" outside the jail and T-shirts sold with Peterson's likeness and the motto: "Modesto, a killer place to live." Blood drives have been held in honor of Laci Peterson and 3,000 people attended her internationally televised memorial service.