#12) August 2003
Laci Peterson Case Information:
When: August 2003
August 1 Kelli Sager files papers on behalf of CNN, Court TV, NBC and ABC with Stanislaus County Superior Court arguing that cameras be allowed in the courtroom during the preliminary hearing. “The media—and, in particular, television—play an indispensable role in informing the public about the conduct of judicial proceedings,” she writes. The papers point out that that those now seeking the closed hearing are the very ones who had used the media to ask for help in solving the crime against Laci Peterson, and that a nation grieved along with them when her body and that of her unborn child were found. “To ask for the public’s interest and involvement in the search, and then disregard the public’s ongoing interest in the result of criminal proceedings, is cavalier,” Sager suggests. The brief contains more than 900 pages of supporting documents, including transcripts of Scott Peterson’s television interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer and appearances by Mark Geragos on Larry King Live. Kirk McAllister files a motion with the Stanislaus County Superior Court late in the afternoon, asking the judge to throw out many of the wiretaps. McAllister contends that allowing a police officer to determine which calls may be privileged violates the constitutional principle of separation of powers. “Freed from interference by the constitutional decision-maker, that officer is thus empowered to himself make judicial decisions, like a modern-day vigilante.” McAllister argues, therefore, the evidence must be thrown out: “Since the statute suffers from this fatal constitutional flaw, its use in the gathering of the information must be ruled unlawful.” The Modesto Bee reveals that Scott Peterson had rented a post office box at Mail Boxes, Etc., the day before his wife disappeared. An unidentified source close to the Peterson family tells the paper the box had been rented for correspondence in connection with his work as a fertilizer salesman for Tradecorp, but the source familiar with the application states that no business address was listed for the box. Citing the gag order, John Goold declines to comment on the discovery. Store manager Laura Rogers says that federal law prevents her from confirming that Scott Peterson rented a box there. Don Reddig explains that anyone who rents a private mailbox must complete a U.S. Postal Service form authorizing them to deliver mail through a private agent. Meanwhile, Cory Carroll is arrested after missing a court date for driving with a suspended license and held without bail because he is on parole.
August 2 The Modesto Bee publishes a couple of articles assessing the impact of the legal filings of the past two days. Gray Davis signs the California state budget, having vetoed the proposal by Jeff Denham to have the state help out with the cost of Scott Peterson’s trial. Davis calls the proposal “unnecessary” because county officials can apply for aid from a state reimbursement fund, which was $7.5 million last year.
August 3 The Modesto Bee publishes an in-depth profile of Amber Frey. It is an article that she pointedly declined to be interviewed for, shaking her head and delivering a firm “no” during an encounter two weeks before at her place of employment.
August 4 The comments of Laci Peterson’s ex-boyfriend, Kent Gain, make news across the country after his weekend interview with Rita Cosby. Speaking from his cell in a Washington state correctional facility, Gain expresses doubts that Laci Peterson was ever told about Amber Frey by Scott Peterson: “You’d have to be an idiot to tell her something like that because she’s pretty fiery and she’s liable to give you a good piece of her mind—she definitely would not keep something like that from her family and friends.” Gain reveals he was considered a suspect early on in the case, but was cleared because he was in prison at the time of Laci Peterson’s disappearance. Gain suggests he never quit loving his former girlfriend: “She was my first love. I can’t say that I’m not in love with her. It’s just one of those things you just don’t get over, I guess.” Al Girolami denies a defense request to seal the August 1, 2003, defense filing. He instead orders the motion to suppress wiretap evidence returned to defense attorneys, giving them until August 6, 2003, to refile. Girolami notes the papers did not include a proper motion to seal court documents. Attorneys for the newspaper coalition file documents noting that defense and prosecution arguments against television cameras at the preliminary hearing do not apply to still cameras used by newspaper photographers.
August 5 Mark Geragos and Kirk McAllister refile documents in Stanislaus County Superior Court asking to throw out all evidence obtained in wiretaps of Scott Peterson’s phone calls. The defense motion asks the court to suppress all wiretap evidence, prohibit testimony from any investigators who listened to the conversations between Scott Peterson and his attorney, and to exclude “any evidence that the government cannot demonstrate was not the fruit of the eavesdropping.” Among the most noteworthy revelations in the papers is that Scott Peterson was offered a deal by prosecutors in January 2003, offering to not pursue the death penalty if he would lead them to the bodies of his slain wife and child. “An offer was made to Mr. Peterson through his lawyer in January in which the prosecution indicated it would not seek the death penalty if Mr. Peterson would provide the location of Laci Peterson’s body,” the motion claims. “Mr. Peterson, of course, did not accept the offer because he is factually innocent and did not know the location of his wife.” In the motion, the defense team contends that the plea offer was an indication that prosecutors “treated this as a death penalty case virtually from the moment of Laci Peterson’s disappearance.” The relevance to the case is that state law requires a court reporter to be present during all proceedings in a death penalty case, but none was present when prosecutors asked Wray Ladine to approve the wiretaps. The Modesto Bee runs an article entitled, “Peterson Media Blitz Yields Lesson.” The article outlines how the Scott Peterson case served as a model to handle the push for information in the Kobe Bryant rape case. In the article, Kelly Huston and Mike Tozzi recall their efforts to deal with the media in the early days after Scott Peterson’s arrest.
August 6 The January 2003 plea deal hits the news, from the Modesto Bee to CNN/Court TV, with various legal experts commenting on its relevance to Scott Peterson’s case.
August 7 In their usual subdued manner, the New York Post runs an article entitled, “Laci Hubby Nixed Deal That Would Spare His Life.”
August 8 Al Girolami issues an order allowing Scott Peterson’s defense attorneys to conduct their own examination of the remains of Laci and Conner Peterson. The order spells out where, when and how that will be done, and it is signed by all parties: Girolami, David Harris for the prosecution, and Kirk McAllister for the defense. According to the agreed-upon order, the examination can take only one day and must be done at the Contra Costa coroner’s office in Martinez during regular business hours, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on August 11, 2003. The order states that only fifteen persons can be present—eight from the defense team, four from the district attorney’s office, two coroner’s officials and a doctor chosen by the coroner’s office. The agreement outlines limitations in the procedures and states that the defense team must pay for the exam and furnish its own equipment, but that it will not be charged for use of the coroner’s facilities. Prosecutors file court documents asking for permission to survey prospective jurors on whether Scott Peterson can get a fair trial in Stanislaus County, hoping to counter an expected defense motion to move the trial to another county. The papers state that the district attorney’s office has hired Ebbe Ebbesen to conduct the survey. According to the filing, Ebbesen plans to use written questionnaires distributed at the courthouse to people arriving for jury duty, comparing their responses about the Scott Peterson case to people in two other counties.
August 11 Henry Lee and Cyril Wecht spend 3 hours in the Contra Costa coroner’s office. They photograph, videotape and take tissue samples. Prosecutors attend the procedure, but David Harris refuses to discuss what went on, citing the gag order. “It was as smooth and performed as well as could be under the circumstances,” Mark Geragos says. After leaving the coroner’s office, Lee, Wecht and a member of the defense team go to Scott and Laci Peterson’s home, look around the yard and tour of the house. Matt Dalton explains the defense team’s “satanic” theory to them in the presence of a writer and photographer for the Modesto Bee, an act Al Girolami later indicates may be in violation of the gag order. Defense attorneys file a court document arguing against the media petition to allow cameras at the preliminary hearing, saying television coverage would prohibit their client from receiving a fair trial. “There is a substantial probability of prejudice that will be prevented by closure of the hearing,” the document says.
August 12 Larry King Live discusses the Scott Peterson case with panel members Ted Rowlands, Nancy Grace, Chris Pixley, Robi Ludwig and Werner Spitz. The main topic of discussion is the defense experts’ examination of the remains of Laci and Conner Peterson.
August 13 Det. Al Brocchini interviews Greg Smith, who phoned in a tip that Bill Pavelic and Matt Dalton had taken a water bottle from the seat of a forklift parked in the former Tradecorp Warehouse.
August 14 Scott Peterson, dressed in a navy suit and white shirt arrives at Stanislaus County Courthouse. Also in attendance are Lee and Jackie Peterson, Sharon Rocha and Ron Grantski, Brent and Amy Rocha, Joe and Janey Peterson, and other family members. The Rocha family submits a written statement to the court, asking to keep the preliminary hearing under wraps: “The events of this week have once again added to our daily grief as we read in the newspapers details regarding our daughter and grandson’s remains and hear unnecessary graphic details when we turn on the television,” the statement says. “This is our Laci and Conner whom we love with all our hearts. This is not a story—this is our life.” Charity Kenyon and Rochelle Wilcox argue for the print and broadcast media, respectively, to keep the preliminary hearing open to the press and televised. Wilcox contends that having televised coverage could provide some “community relief and sense of understanding” for those who worked tirelessly searching for Laci Peterson. As for television coverage’s impact on a fair trial, she says, “Not everyone pays attention to what happens in this courtroom.” Mark Geragos argues that a public preliminary hearing would hurt his client’s chances of a fair trial, saying that the case was unique because it created a “massive drumbeat within a small community” that would not have the same effect in a major city. “We are in Stanislaus County, not in L.A. County,” Geragos tells Girolami. “I invite you any time you want, to move this case to Los Angeles County, and we could do an open hearing there.” Girolami says there is no way to ascertain if any real damage will be done by a public hearing. “The harm expected is speculative,” he states. Ultimately, he rejects the motion for a closed hearing, saying the high legal bar set by the U.S. Supreme Court to close a preliminary hearing has not been met. “In short, this court cannot make a blanket closure,” Girolami rules. After losing that battle, Geragos does an about-face and asks for a televised hearing, saying somewhat sarcastically, “They did it in O.J. Simpson, they did it in Robert Blake—so what the heck, let’s pollute the whole state.” He also provides a more measured response, saying, “The accuracy of the information when it’s not televised is always suspect.” Dave Harris accuses the media of trying to turn the case into a ratings bonanza and argues that, contrary to studies that show the opposite, cameras would affect the testimony of witnesses. “Human nature tells us that something’s going to happen when someone sticks a camera in your face,” he says. “This is not entertainment. This is not for ratings.” Gloria Allred tells Girolami that Amber Frey, too, objects to having her testimony broadcast. “She feels it will add a layer of stress for her,” Allred states. Girolami replies that he will rule on the television issue within a few days. Girolami denies the prosecution’s request to survey citizens about their knowledge of the case to determine whether a change of venue is needed, calling the action premature since the defense has not filed an official request to move the trial. “What’s the big rush?” he asks. Girolami orders an inquiry into a Modesto Bee article that quoted Matt Dalton discussing a theory that Laci Peterson’s body could have been dumped into the bay near a location in Albany where “satanic” artwork was found. Geragos notes that journalists had been present in the lobby of a crime lab in Ripon when the remarks were made, and blames “eavesdropping” for the report, eliciting open laughter from the courtroom. Representatives for the Modesto Bee counter that Dalton was aware that a reporter and photographer were present. Girolami schedules the inquiry for after the preliminary hearing. Mark Vasché says he is “disappointed and distressed by Mr. Geragos’ statement” suggesting that Dalton was somehow unaware of the presence of the reporters. “In this case, there is no doubt whatsoever that Mr. Dalton and Drs. Lee and Wecht were aware of the presence of the two Modesto Bee journalists,” he states. “Before they even began discussing the case, our reporter introduced and identified himself to them. And they willingly allowed our photographer to take several dozen images of them. We invite Mr. Dalton and Drs. Lee and Wecht to say what really happened.” Geragos ducks out of the courthouse through a back entrance, so reporters are unable to question him about the controversy. Asked about the issue, John Goold simply states, “We will take a look at that.” Outside the courtroom, Lee and Jackie Peterson are served with subpoenas by prosecutors. Lee Peterson states he believes the subpoena is just a ploy to quiet him, since as a witness, he falls under the protective order. “We’re not witnesses. There’s no way we’re witnesses. They made us a witness with this little green subpoena,” he says, waving the subpoena paper. “The true purpose of this is to place us under the gag order. They don’t like us saying our son is innocent. I guess the Police Department and the D.A.’s office think that’s threatening to them, so they did this. Is this still the United States? It’s still the United States, isn’t it?” The Modesto Police Department issues parking tickets to several cars, including two used by the Peterson family, that were parked in the wrong direction in front of the courthouse. Joe Peterson is photographed by Debbie Noda of the Modesto Bee as he removes a parking ticket from his vehicle. The Modesto Bee reports that the remains of Laci and Conner Peterson are scheduled to be returned to the Rocha family by August 22, 2003. Adam Stewart says Laci Peterson’s parents “just want to give their daughter a Christian burial.” He indicates that waiting for the various examinations to be completed has been difficult for them, to say the least: “They’re devastated. They’ve been without their daughter for nine months and the mere thought of the things that are having to be conducted…it’s horrible.”
August 15 In an article entitled, “Hearing Open to Public,” the Modesto Bee reports on the previous day’s proceedings.
August 17 The Modesto Bee discusses the implications of the subpoenas issued to Lee and Jackie Peterson in an article entitled, “Parents May Not Attend Hearing.”
August 18 Saying that he was concerned about turning the preliminary hearing into a “reality television show,” Al Girolami rules that cameras will not be allowed in the courtroom. In a seven-page decision responding to nearly 1,000 pages of arguments on the issue, Girolami cites 18 criteria that he calls “most critical” to the decision. He calls “particularly compelling” the request by the Rocha family that the preliminary hearing not be filmed. “While the media cite a ‘community therapeutic value’ in favor of coverage, the court believes that whatever therapeutic value there may be in the evidence of this case becoming public is sufficiently served by it being available to members of the public via other modes such as the print media and the Internet,” the decision states. Although admitting that the Rocha family will necessarily have to relive their nightmare in the courtroom, Girolami contends that “televising these passionate proceedings is not, however, necessary to the process.” Girolami also suggests he has considered Gloria Allred’s pleas on behalf of her client: “The court believes that it is important to reduce witnesses’ nervousness and apprehension.” He doesn’t presume that the lack of cameras will keep the public from knowing what transpires: “There is no doubt that the public will know every nuance of what occurs in the courtroom despite the lack of television coverage.” Nevertheless, he suggests that newspaper accounts have less potential to taint the jury pool than broadcast coverage, with prospective jurors having more difficulty disregarding something they have seen replayed “many times on television in living color as opposed to something they have read about a few times in black and white.” Girolami strongly reinforces his previous suggestions that a change of venue “is not a desirable option.” Fox News suggests that the move to keep cameras out of the preliminary hearing is a sign that they could also be prohibited during a jury trial. Prosecutors submit to the court that all discovery in the case has been turned over to Scott Peterson’s defense team, listing 23,700 pages of documents, 18 videotapes, 100 audio tapes, 5 DVDs, 3 wiretap CDs, all search warrant material and all wiretap documentary evidence. In the filing, prosecutors request information from the defense, including the names and addresses of potential witnesses and any real evidence the defense intends to offer at the preliminary hearing. Rick Distaso notes that the prosecution has no known evidence that would clear Scott Peterson, contrary to previous claims by Mark Geragos. Kirk McAllister files an eight-page motion listing 26 areas where the defense wants more information from prosecutors. The papers request information about dogs used in the case, including their veterinary records, training reports, reliability tests and trainers’ backgrounds. Larry King Live welcomes panel members Ted Rowlands, Nancy Grace, Chris Pixley and Robi Ludwig, with the main topic of discussion being Girolami’s decision to ban cameras from the courtroom during the preliminary hearing.
August 19 The Modesto Bee, in an article entitled, “Peterson Not a ‘Reality’ Show,” discusses Al Girolami’s decision to prohibit cameras during the preliminary hearing. The article states that Girolami admitted in his writing the possibility the wrong man was in custody, even though he previously stated that the defense had shown no evidence of such: “Because this case remains in its earliest stages, the possibility exists that the actual perpetrator remains at large.” The Modesto Bee also reports on other court documents filed the previous day, noting that the bloodhound tracking of December 26, 2002, appears to be emerging as key evidence, along with the so-called “hypnotized witnesses.” Jeff Denham states that he will continue pushing for the state to cover Stanislaus County’s costs in the investigation and trial of Scott Peterson, despite a line-item veto by Gray Davis that killed funding. “It’ll come back up in January,” he promises.
August 20 Asking the Fifth District Court of Appeal for “immediate intervention,” Mark Geragos files a motion for it to reverse Al Girolami’s decision to keep the preliminary hearing open. “If the preliminary hearing occurs without this court’s intervention, the prejudice to Mr. Peterson and this investigation will be irreversible,” Geragos writes. Short of ordering a closed hearing, the defense asks the appellate court to order another hearing by Girolami to lay out why his decision is not in “direct conflict” with earlier rulings imposing the gag order and sealing most case documents.
August 21 The Modesto Bee runs an article about the recently discovered “hypnotized witness,” Kristen Dempewolf. The article states: “A prosecution witness who resembled a pregnant Laci Peterson was interviewed using ‘hypnosis techniques’ in a likely attempt to undercut Scott Peterson’s defense in the double murder case, according to a source and court documents.” According to the cited court records, which misspelled her name as “Deppenwolf,” investigators conducted a “cognitive interview where hypnosis techniques were used” on her. Her husband, Martin Dempewolf, says his wife has been subpoenaed in the case and, therefore, is under the gag order. A defense-hired radiologist visits the laboratory of the Contra Costa County coroner to X-ray the remains of Laci and Conner Peterson (according to the New York Post, this visit occurs on August 20, 2003). Having been released by the Contra Costa coroner’s office, the remains of Laci and Conner Peterson arrive at the Stanislaus County coroner’s office, where they are being held as a courtesy to the Rocha family.
August 22 Jim Brazelton makes a brief statement regarding the remains of Laci and Conner Peterson: “No comments will be made regarding any release of the remains of Laci and Conner Peterson from the Contra Costa County coroner’s facility. The district attorney requests that all parties respect the privacy of the Rocha family in this time of mourning.” Charity Kenyon files documents with the court contending for an open preliminary hearing, saying that, although the defense has implied that the court “has already determined as a matter of fact that Scott Peterson cannot get a fair trial anywhere in this state, no such finding has been made.” O.J. Simpson comes to the defense of Scott Peterson. In comments to be shared in an upcoming issue of Playboy, Simpson states, “Look at Scott Peterson. Ask anyone in America about him. They’ll say the guy is guilty. But we haven’t heard one shred of evidence.” Simpson blamed the media for the presumption of guilt in the case, suggesting there may be innocent reasons for why Scott Peterson took the actions he has. Simpson offers as an example that Scott Peterson may have changed his looks not to flee but “so he could go out on the golf course” without being recognized. On Mornings on 2, Denise Brown blasts Simpson for his comments and suggests that closing the courtroom to television cameras may hurt the prosecution. “In our case, it was the best decision ever,” she says. “No one ever would have believed that O.J. Simpson could have done something as horrific as he did. The cameras in the courtroom will allow people to see what’s going on, to hear what’s going on…You get a better perspective of everything.”
August 24 Fox News breaks a story that Scott Peterson once admitted involvement in Laci Peterson’s death to Amber Frey. The report cites a conversation between the two in which he replied, when asked if he had killed Laci Peterson, “Yes…uh…uh…but no. But I know who did, and I’ll tell you later when I see you.” According to the report, Amber Frey has turned over to the Modesto Police Department between 30 and 40 tapes of her conversations with Scott Peterson.
August 25 Kim Petersen reports that any future memorial service for Laci and Conner Peterson will be private. “They held the public memorial and appreciate the outpouring of support from the community,” she states. “If they choose to do anything else, it will be done in private.”
August 26 Osha Neumann posts an editorial in which he defends the practices of the Sniff artists’ collective, whom he says have been indirectly accused of involvement in Laci Peterson’s death.
August 27 The Fifth District Court of Appeals summarily denies the appeal to Al Girolami’s ruling that Scott Peterson’s preliminary hearing will be open to the public.
August 28 Through the filing of court documents signed by Mark Geragos and Birgit Fladager, prosecutors and defense attorneys agree to drop allegations against each other that they violated the gag order to, in the words of the filing, “allow each side to focus on their preparations for the case.” Although “without admitting any violation occurred,” the agreement settles the defense team’s contention that Jim Brazelton violated the gag order by telling a Modesto Bee reporter that the preliminary hearing “might open some eyes,” and the prosecution’s claim that Matt Dalton did likewise by outlining in front of Bee reporters a defense theory involving Satanists.Al Girolami accepts the agreement but reserves the right to pursue the allegations “at any future time.” Elizabeth Gleick appears on Today, promoting the magazine’s viewpoint that important information helping Scott Peterson’s defense was overlooked in the case. She suggests that Conner Peterson may have been born alive: “Our team of reporters, based on a look at confidential documents, crime scene photographs, interviews with many many sources over many weeks, can confirm that the bodies were actually in very different conditions…there are some indications that the baby may—we do not know—but may have lived outside the womb.” She says the tape wrapped around Conner Peterson “doesn’t necessarily look like debris.” She also states there were many witnesses to “Laci” on December 24, 2002, and that the burglary of the Medina home may have happened at the same time as Laci Peterson’s disappearance—not days later as investigators stated. “There are conflicting reports everywhere,” she summarizes.
August 29 After months in a watery grave and more months of legal wrangling, Laci and Conner Peterson are finally laid to rest. The media is kept at a distance from the proceedings, and Stanislaus County and San Joaquin County sheriff’s deputies in dark suits stand across the cemetery throughout the 30-minute graveside service. A mass at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church is led by Joseph Illo. “Laci represents every daughter whose mother has had to bury her,” he says. “In Laci’s death, we come face to face with our own death—her suffering is our suffering.” His message offers no answer to what he terms a “senseless” killing. “Why did she and Conner die? What insanity drove the killer to destroy such beauty and such life? A young mother and her son. For this there is no direct answer.” After the funeral mass, a white Cadillac hearse and a limousine lead family and friends to Burwood Cemetery, where an obviously still-angry Ron Grantski addresses approximately 250 mourners: “She was the light of my life. The animal that did this to her is going to pay.” White-gloved pallbearers carry mother and child, laid to rest in a single casket. The funeral includes a “Recipe for Happy Life,” a tribute to Laci Peterson’s passion for cooking. At the close of the graveside ceremony, two doves take flight, followed by twenty more. The flock circles twice above the cemetery before flying north and out of sight. Mourners leave the new grave blanketed with sunflowers and lilies. After the ceremony, Grantski explains the symbolism of the doves: “The two were Laci and Conner. The rest were angels sent to help follow them to heaven. This is hard, but it’s supposed to be hard.” He said that Sharon Rocha has “been amazing through this” and chose to make the funeral arrangements herself. Adam Stewart requests that reporters continue to give the family privacy and a chance to mourn. The latest People magazine hits newsstands, featuring a cover story called “The Secret Laci Files” that is largely a defense of Scott Peterson. The New York Post runs an article that reports on the People magazine article.
August 30 Over the long holiday weekend, reports swirl that Scott Peterson is enraged by the decision of Mark Geragos to further delay the preliminary hearing. Stanislaus County Jail officials field dozens of calls trying to confirm a rumor that Scott Peterson has killed himself.
August 31 The San Jose Mercury News carries an article about Mark Geragos entitled, “Scott Peterson’s Attorney: From Detractor to Defender.” In the article, Jackie Peterson speaks about the change of view from Geragos the media pundit to Geragos the defense attorney: “For me, it showed that it changed his mind once he knew the true facts, and it can change anyone’s mind. It’s not about his ego. He really wants to correct an injustice. I truly believe that.” Although Geragos calls the Scott Peterson case an “enormous challenge,” he notes his record of fifty murder charge defenses with no client receiving the death penalty or life without parole. Ten of those cases ended in acquittals or dismissals, he says.