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Court TV

Public service or soap opera? A judge will decide in Peterson case

By Harriet Ryan
Court TV

Scott Peterson, right, seen earlier this year in court with attorney Mark Geragos.
Scott Peterson, right, seen earlier this year in court with attorney Mark Geragos.

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MODESTO, California (Court TV) -- In less than a month, prosecutors trying Scott Peterson for the murders of his wife and unborn child will stand up in a courtroom here and tell a judge exactly why they believe he is the killer. They will call witnesses and provide exhibits, and when the hearing is concluded, the judge will decide whether the prosecutors have enough evidence to go to trial.

Who should be permitted to observe this "mini-trial?" Should it be millions of television viewers watching in their own homes? Or the 42 souls who can squeeze into narrow wooden seats in the courtroom? Or only the lawyers, the judge and Peterson?

On Thursday, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami will hear arguments on the issue. Nearly every party involved in the case has voiced concerns about just who will be present for the preliminary hearing. Laci Peterson's mother and stepfather are vehemently opposed to televised coverage as is the district attorney's office. Scott Peterson's defense team wants all members of the public barred, and his former mistress insists cameras be turned off if she takes the stand.

In a routine case, there would hardly be a question. State law generally permits cameras and as many citizens as fire code will allow into preliminary hearings. But as the satellite trucks lining Modesto's 11th Street attest, the Peterson case is anything but run-of-the-mill.

A gag order issued in June has slowed national coverage, but hardly stopped it. Laci Peterson's face still smiles out from supermarket tabloids each week, and reports about leaked evidence still provide ample material for cable's tournaments of expert extemporaneousness.

If cameras are permitted for the hearing, local stations and national cable outlets, including Court TV, would certainly broadcast it, bringing the faces and detailed accounts of witnesses, as well as a close-up look at the legal process, into the homes of people who previously knew only the general outlines of the case.

Whether this coverage is a public service or only sensationalism is at the heart of the debate between media outlets seeking access and the district attorney's office. In deciding whether to allow broadcast, the judge is to consider 19 different factors, including the privacy rights of those involved, the effect on the potential jury pool and the importance of maintaining public confidence in the legal process.

Courts generally consider journalists stand-ins for citizens, who have a constitutional right to witness criminal proceedings. News outlets like CNN and Court TV have argued that cameras are the most accurate recorders of information, and without them the public must rely on second-hand descriptions and gossip.

But Stanislaus County prosecutors have derided media claims of public service, saying television "has blurred, if not erased, the lines between 'news' and 'entertainment.'"

"To thrust nervous and unwilling victims, witnesses and others into the glaring media spotlight and to thereafter face the subsequent fallout from such exposure, does not create confidence in the judicial system. It merely fuels 24-hour television," prosecutor Dave Harris wrote in papers urging the judge to "cancel" the Peterson "program" -- which he compared to a daytime soap -- by nixing cameras.

Laci Peterson's family has also spoken out against broadcast, saying video of the hearing and trial will force her relatives and friends "to see, hear and relive these events over and over and over for years to come."

Scott Peterson's legal team has gone a step further, asking that the courtroom doors be locked during the preliminary hearing and that only Peterson, the judge, the lawyers and support staff be permitted to hear the evidence against him.

His lawyer cites two reasons seemingly at odds. Defense attorney Mark Geragos claims that the prosecution evidence will taint the jury pool and make it difficult to pick panelists who can be fair and impartial in the face of massive coverage of the preliminary hearing.

But Geragos also claims that he plans to introduce bombshell evidence during the hearing that will exonerate Peterson. He fears press dissemination of this shocking information would tip off "the real killers."

"Closure coupled with the gag order will serve to ensure that Mr. Peterson (and the prosecution) receive an opportunity to have this matter determined by a fair and impartial jury," Geragos wrote, adding in a footnote, "Or as the defense anticipates, the exculpatory evidence will result in a dismissal of this case."

To close the court, Peterson must prove to the judge that there is a "substantial probability" that his fair trial rights will be jeopardized and that there is no way other than locking the courtroom doors to protect those rights.

Lawyers for the media say Peterson hasn't come close to meeting the "substantial probability" test and note that in 17 years since the U.S. Supreme Court established that standard, no California judge has closed a preliminary hearing.

It is unclear whether Girolami will rule from the bench on media access. The judge, a former prosecutor, has allowed cameras in other hearings, but delayed broadcast until the hearing is finished or in a recess.

According to court staff, cameras were permitted in one preliminary hearing in Stanislaus County many years ago, and they have never been permitted in a trial.


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