Media efforts to get Search Warrants unsealed

March 17 People filed Motion to oppose the Modesto Bee's motion for access to certain sealed warrants.  3PDF 3Text

April 4 Roger Beauchesne rules in favor of a media motion filed by KTVU, the Modesto Bee and other media outlets, to release all or a portion of the documents filed to obtain eight search warrants in the Laci Peterson case. Modesto Police Department officials are clearly unhappy with the ruling. 

MPD Press Release:  "The Stanislaus County Superior Court made a decision today regarding release of information from search warrants in the Laci Peterson investigation. The Modesto Police Department was present in court for a hearing held today regarding the Modesto Bee's petition to the court. This petition was regarding the procedural release of search warrants obtained in the Laci Peterson investigation. The Police Department supports the argument brought forth by the District Attorney's Office that this information should not be released to the public or the media while the investigation is ongoing. The decision by the Court today was to allow an in-camera (private) hearing where the judge will decide if all or part of the search warrants should continue to be sealed or should be released to the public. Detectives from the Modesto Police Department will be present at the hearing to provide statements that will support our request for the continued sealing of the search warrants. In addition, the Police Department will be researching possible legislative action to further clarify the law in regard to such hearings and the potential pre-complaint unsealing of the search warrants."

April 10 In a reversal of his April 4, 2003, decision, Roger Beauchesne rules that he will not release any information from search warrants issued in the Laci Peterson case. "It is paramount that the investigation be thorough and unhampered, in part because of the potential penalty of death," he writes.

MPD Press Release:  "A judge ruled today on the petition filed by the media to unseal the search warrants and affidavits in support of search warrants in the Laci Peterson investigation. The Court denied the request to unseal the warrants in its entirety. Around 11:00 a.m. today, Roger M. Beauchesne, a judge of the Superior Court, announced his ruling regarding the warrants in the Laci Peterson Homicide case. Judge Beauchesne ruled that the petitioners' request was denied in its entirety. "We believed the release of information from the search warrants would have been premature and so we were pleased with the court's decision" said Greg Savelli, Commander of Investigative Services Division. Modesto Bee filed the media request to unseal the warrants. The court heard this matter on April 9, 2003, in an in-camera hearing for the purpose of determining the unsealing petition. Lead investigator Detective Craig Grogan of the Homicide Unit and Captain Greg Savelli testified in an effort to keep the warrants sealed for integrity of the investigation. "…revelations of confidential information contained in the warrants, affidavits and returns would irreparably harm the investigation," stated Judge Beauchesne in his ruling. The media felt that the public's need to know was more important than the keeping the warrants confidential and the investigation intact until such time as the case is filed for criminal complaint. The court will allow the sealing for up to 90 days at which time the court can consider an application for extension from the Police Department to keep warrants sealed."

April 11 The Modesto Bee reports on Roger Beauchesne's decision to keep the search warrants sealed. "I'm disappointed in the decision, but not surprised," Joe Demma says. "The judge said in open court he disagrees with the law that says the warrants should be made public." The article notes that Beauchesne conducted two closed hearings before determining that all documents related to search warrants would remain sealed.

April 18 In a hearing, Roger Beauchesne states that the court made a mistake in sealing search warrants related to the Carmen Sabatino and Scott Peterson cases without notification to the public. "The law says what the law says," he declares. "The court erred in not providing proper notice to the public with regard to the sealing of all of the search warrants in both of these matters." Beauchesne does not, however, open the warrants, noting that law enforcement and prosecutors should review them to decide if they need to stay sealed. Dave Harris argues that the law is unconstitutional, which brings a rebuke from Beauchesne. "Are you asking me to find this section that's been on the books for 40-odd years to be unconstitutional?" the judge asks. "Are you asking me to carve out some new law this morning, or what?" Jim Brazelton, Roy Wasden, Les Weidman and Art De Werk also attend the hearing. Mark Vasché declares a small win for the public's right to know, calling the decision "a victory for the people and for open government." Brazelton is less enthusiastic about the call, saying his office will appeal the ruling. "This ruling is in opposition to how law enforcement has proceeded throughout history in California," he argues. Wasden was less argumentative. "I understand the position the judge is in," he says. "I think there needs to be some clarification of these issues, possibly with some legislative remedy."

May 5 Scott Peterson appears in court for the first time in street clothes: a dark blue suit. Mark Geragos argues before Al Girolami that the judge should disqualify himself from the case because a related civil case had been reassigned from him: "This court is literally hog-tied to try to enforce some type of control [over the media] in the courtroom," Mark Geragos states. Girolami denies the defense motion, but does admit Kirk McAllister to be part of the defense team. Shortly thereafter, Geragos and McAllister argue before Roger Beauchesne against releasing documents related to the case. Geragos claims that records regarding search warrants and the arrest of his client should be kept sealed, noting that the contents of what he calls "voodoo-type investigations" may prejudice the defense of his client. Although not having reviewed the documents, he specifically cites possible aspects of the investigation that will clearly not show up in court: "You have psychics, you have analytical research studying micro-expressions of his face. You have voice-stress analyzers. All of this is totally inadmissible." He mentions the famous Sam Sheppard murder case, which became the model for the television show The Fugitive, and suggests that "the publicity in that case pales by comparison to the publicity in this case." Beauchesne, although admitting that he was inclined to release the documents, changes his mind after hearing the defense team argument, and determines that a state appeals court should decide if evidence should be released to the public. He schedules for June 3, 2003, a hearing for more arguments on the records, which media outlets have petitioned to be released, keeping intact an order from the 5th District Court of Appeals in Fresno to keep them sealed until the court rules—that court having overturned Beauchesne's ruling that warrants should be unsealed when an arrest is made.

June 3 A hearing is held in response to a motion by the Los Angeles Times, the Modesto Bee, the San Francisco Chronicle, and NBC to release search warrants and an arrest affidavit related to the case. Mark Geragos is trying a case in Los Angeles and does not attend the hearing. Matt Dalton urges Roger Beauchesne to keep the documents sealed, saying making them public could jeopardize the defense's search for "the real killers" of Laci and Conner Peterson. "We have information we feel could possibly affect an arrest of other suspects we feel are still out there." He claims the defense team has "made great progress" in their investigation and offers to provide more details in private. For once, Dave Harris sides with the defense, arguing that releasing the information in the warrants will make it harder for investigators to distinguish good tips from false ones, contrary to the current state where they "are able to say this person is not credible because the facts they provide are wrong." He calls that control "a crucial tool" authorities will use to build a "bulletproof" case that can withstand an appeal to a possible conviction. Harris suggests to Beauchesne that he wait until the preliminary hearing, scheduled to begin July 16, 2003, and release only information that becomes public through testimony. Beauchesne voices concern about setting such a precedent, saying, "Secrecy of legal proceedings is obviously disfavored." Charity Kenyon, arguing on behalf of several media outlets, notes that prosecutors had earlier reversed their stance on keeping secret the autopsy reports after there were leaks to the media that prosecutors said were favorable to Scott Peterson's defense. Beauchesne then asks the attorneys, "Should I make my decision this morning based on leaks and articles in newspapers?"

June 6 Beginning at 1:30 p.m., in Department 5, Roger Beauchesne meets in chambers with prosecutors and defense team members Geragos and Kirk McAllister, who say they have evidence that points to the "real killers" of Laci and Conner Peterson. Matt Dalton arrives late and is not admitted to the meeting. Following the 1-hour meeting, both sides refuse to reveal details, but Geragos states, "I'm just hopeful that sooner rather than later we can show that this prosecution of Scott is a great injustice." Days later, Beauchesne reveals in a written ruling that the defense team presented no evidence of "other suspects" during the closed hearing.

June 12 Roger Beauchesne issues an three-page order making public the search and arrests warrants and their associated documents, but postpones their release pending an appellate court ruling scheduled for July 8, 2003—the day after a May 5, 2003, appellate ruling becomes final. The ruling does not cover the arrest warrant, autopsy reports, a postarrest search warrant and addenda to two other search warrants, which were ruled sealed by Al Girolami. In his opinion, Beauchesne remarks that, contrary to defense team claims, "No evidence on the investigation of 'other suspects' was presented" during the closed hearing on June 6, 2003. An obviously pleased Charity Kenyon remarks after the ruling, "We're hoping that people will now focus on the upcoming preliminary hearing where we expect more information will become public." According to Mark Geragos, Dave Harris agrees with him concerning the idea of removing Roger Beauchesne from involvement in the Scott Peterson case…John Goold expresses his usual calm demeanor and remarks that his office has not decided whether or not to appeal Beauchesne's decision to unseal the search warrants……

June 13 Moreover, the piece of information that was upsetting to Geragos—the fact that the defense did not make good on its promise to present evidence of other suspects—had already been revealed in a public document issued earlier in the day by Roger Beauchesne. John Goold declines to comment on the gag order or the complaint by Geragos, saying that prosecutors are still reviewing the order. "We're not going to make any comments until we know we're on firm ground to comment," he says. "In the meantime, we're not saying anything."……

June 17 Mark Geragos asks the Fifth District Court of Appeal to remove Roger Beauchesne from involvement in the Scott Peterson case and to reverse his decision against keeping search warrants secret, saying that, otherwise, a "media firestorm of misinformation will result." Geragos writes that "Judge Beauchesne's prejudice against Mr. Peterson has become evident." Senior Deputy District Attorney Dave Harris agreed with the idea of removing Beauchesne in a conversation with Geragos on Thursday, Geragos writes. John Goold refuses to confirm Geragos' claim that the prosecution has agreed to the removal of Beauchesne, stating, "We're going to file our own paperwork, and our position will be set out in our paperwork."

July 1 The Modesto Bee runs an article stating that prosecution attorneys have joined Scott Peterson's defense team in asking the Fifth District Court of Appeal to keep search warrants sealed and remove the judge, Roger Beauchesne, who ordered them opened

July 30 The Fifth District Court of Appeal overturns Roger Beauchesne's decision to unseal eight search warrants issued during the early investigation—a defeat for media attorneys who had argued that the documents should be made public. "How a fair trial for both parties—and particularly how an untainted jury could be found anywhere—in the aftermath of such a frenzy escapes us," writes a unanimous three-judge panel in a 10-page ruling. The tone is sarcastic at times: "So far as we are aware, the presumption of innocence is still a fundamental constitutional right." The court turns down a request by Mark Geragos, and endorsed by prosecutors, to have Beauchesne removed from the case. "We're disappointed, that's no surprise," Charity Kenyon says. "Obviously, the Superior Court judge and the court of appeals are seeing things differently."