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Public debate shifts over accused husband in Peterson case

By Harriet Ryan

Scott Peterson, right, with defense attorney Mark Geragos.
Scott Peterson, right, with defense attorney Mark Geragos.

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(Court TV) -- A few days after he took Scott Peterson's case, defense lawyer Mark Geragos stood on the steps of the Stanislaus County courthouse surrounded by his new client's family and predicted public opinion of the murder suspect was about to change.

"I think it's only a matter of time before we're able to turn America's head around," Geragos told scores of reporters eager to gobble up any speck of information about Peterson and the killing of his pregnant wife, Laci, and unborn son.

At the time, Geragos' forecast seemed about as likely as June snow in Modesto. In the hot, dry California city and across the nation, Peterson was Public Enemy No. 1. When he was arrested, a throng of angry citizens greeted his arrival at the county jail with bloodthirsty chants and signs reading MURDERER. The front page of the New York Post showed Peterson in shackles beneath the headline "MONSTER IN CHAINS." And the California attorney general pronounced the case against Peterson "a slam dunk."

But in the 28 days since Geragos became Peterson's attorney, an improbable, but unmistakable shift in the public discussion of the crime has occurred. The question is no longer "How could he do it?" but "Did he do it?"

The change seems clearly the result of a series of press leaks -- some directly credited to the defense side and others to unspecified sources -- including speculation that Laci Peterson died at the hands of a Satanic cult and last Thursday's revelation by MSNBC that the coroner found a plastic tape "noose" around the neck of the Petersons' unborn son, Conner, when his body was found on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay.

Geragos denied being the source of that leak and even volunteered to swear to it on the witness stand, but steamed prosecutors made clear they thought the defense was to blame. In court papers filed just hours after the report, prosecutors said the new information "skewed" toward Peterson's legal team and asked a judge to release the entire coroner's report publicly so "the media will see what the actual facts are."

Whoever the source, the report concerning the condition of baby Conner's body fit nicely with the Satanic cult theory of the murders advanced first through defense leaks and then openly by Geragos. About two weeks after the lawyer took over Peterson's case, NBC reported that the defense had information about cults operating in the Modesto area and speculated that Conner Peterson was cut from his mother's body during a Satanic ritual. Other reports citing defense sources indicated that when Peterson's body was recovered on the bay shoreline, it was mutilated in a manner consistent with ritual sacrifice, and still other outlets reported that the defense was chasing its own prime suspects, some apparently connected with a strange brown van and a suspicious man with 666 tattooed on his arm.

Although no one knows when Peterson's trial will begin, nor where it will be held -- the defense is expected to ask for a change of venue -- the leaks are likely the first effort to influence the panelists who will some day, in some courthouse, sit in judgment of Scott Peterson.

"There's been a concerted effort to try to change the hearts and minds of potential jurors," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. "The strategy is to create questions now and hope that it will translate into reasonable doubt later."

Not all legal experts agree on its wisdom, however. Miami jury consultant Sandy Marks, who worked for the defense in the trials of Timothy McVeigh and William Kennedy Smith, said that, while putting the defense story out in the public arena can be useful, timing the release of information is important.

"Jurors -- and people in general -- have a short memory. This will only be good for the next week or two. If he's got substantial stuff, why leak it now? Let's save it for right before trial," Marks said.

Los Angeles criminal defense lawyer Harland Braun, who initially represented Robert Blake, disagreed.

"If you've got anything, get it out there or you are going to lose the jury," said Braun, no stranger to defending clients by going on the offense. Long before Blake was arrested, Braun released documents and audiotapes portraying Blake's murdered wife as a conniving grifter. In defense polling done after he made the information public, 80 percent of those surveyed believed Blake guilty, but 90 percent had a negative opinion about his alleged victim, Braun said.

Putting the information out is essential, Braun said, because jurors consider public opinion along with the law and evidence as they deliberate, and few panelists want to buck conventional wisdom with their verdicts.

"They are going to worry about what their neighbors think. Nobody wants to be regarded as a buffoon," said Braun.

Chicago-based jury consultant Paul Lisnek said the long window before the trial could actually help the defense to make the Satanic cult theory -- which he described as "pretty far out there" -- sound "more palatable."

"The more people hear something, the more reasonable it sounds. If you put this cult theory out now, by the time the trial happens, it will have become part of their reality and jurors will say, 'Oh yeah, the Satanic theory, I've heard about this," said Lisnek.

The volume of leaking may come to an end soon, however. Superior Court Judge Al Girolami, who is overseeing the case, has voiced concern about the massive media coverage and said he is leaning toward imposing a gag order, perhaps as early as next Friday.

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