judge won't release autopsy reports
Written ruling on gag order still to come
Tuesday, June 10, 2003 Posted: 4:01 PM
EDT (2001 GMT)
MODESTO, California (CNN) -- A California judge ruled against prosecutors in the Scott Peterson murder case Friday, declining to release autopsy reports on the bodies of Laci Peterson and her unborn son.
Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Al Girolami also declined to issue a gag order. Girolami did limit what attorneys, assistants and others working for the legal teams may say or disclose, but said he would take the gag order matter "into submission" and issue a ruling in writing.
Girolami also authorized the Contra Costa County coroner to release death certificates for Laci Peterson and the child. Peterson's death certificate lists her cause of death as "undetermined" but rules it a homicide, CNN learned Friday.
No cause of death is listed for her unborn child.
Scott Peterson faces two counts of murder in the deaths of Laci Peterson, 27, and their unborn child. He has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder in the case; prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty if he is convicted.
The victims' bodies were found in early April about 80 miles from their home, near the marina where Scott Peterson said he had launched his boat on a fishing trip Christmas Eve, the day his wife disappeared.
The judge delayed hearing a defense motion on potential improprieties regarding wiretaps in the case after lead defense attorney Mark Geragos asked for more time to obtain and review documents and recordings.
Girolami ordered the documents and recordings handed over to the defense team and set a June 26 hearing on the matter.
The judge refused to grant another motion regarding the wiretaps from several journalists whose conversations with Peterson were recorded. The motion asked first that each journalist be allowed access to the recording of him or her, and then that the recordings and their contents be sealed.
Girolami ordered the calls sealed until July 17, the day after a preliminary hearing. At that point, the defense and prosecution would be allowed to hear the tapes and decide if they object to providing access for the journalists.
Sharon Rocha, Laci Peterson's mother, cries during Friday's hearing.
A partial leak of the autopsy report on the fetus last week prompted the prosecution, which had previously opposed releasing the reports, to reverse its position and argue in favor of the release to fight misinformation that District Attorney James Brazelton said resulted from the leak.
The courtroom battle over the autopsy report was muted in tone but heated in substance, with Geragos stridently denying that anyone on the defense team had leaked the report.
Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, left the courtroom in tears as the discussions continued.
Scott Peterson kept his eyes closed for much of the discussion on the autopsy reports, appearing to wince at the mention of death certificates. When that part of the procedure ended, he wiped the corners of his eyes with a handkerchief.
After the two-hour hearing, prosecutor John Goold took the ruling in stride.
"It's just one step in the process," he said. "That's the judge's decision, and we'll certainly abide by it."
Girolami ordered last week that the leaks stop and indicated that he would consider a gag order to stop the prosecution and defense teams from talking to the media. He said releasing the autopsy reports could hamper the investigation into Laci Peterson's death and prejudice public opinion before her husband is tried.
Prosecutors have said they would support some form of a gag order, but Geragos said in court papers that he opposes any effort to curtail discussions about the case, according to an AP report.
In his motion on the wiretaps, Geragos asked that the prosecutors handling the case be removed because of what he termed "grave prosecutorial misconduct" relating to the interception of 69 phone calls Peterson made before his arrest. He also asked that all information from the wiretaps be suppressed.
In a court filing Thursday responding to the charges, Stanislaus County Assistant District Attorney Rick Distaso said the wiretaps were authorized under both California and federal law.
He said only two of the phone calls were privileged communication between Peterson and his previous attorney, and that both were monitored only long enough to determine who was on the line. Distaso also said prosecutors had not listened to the calls in question and did not plan to use either of the phone calls with Peterson's lawyer, or a third call to a private investigator he hired, in the trial.
Distaso said the "sole purpose" of the defense motion was "to influence the court with inflammatory language." And he said the only possible sanction that could be imposed on prosecutors would be to suppress the three calls in question, not to throw the attorneys off the case.
In court Friday, Distaso said prosecutors were prepared to go forward with the hearing, but Geragos asked for and received the delay.
After the hearing, Goold said prosecutors had first brought the three wiretaps to the attention of the court after reading the summaries of the phone calls. Girolami sealed those recordings, and prosecutors never heard them.