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Judge changes Peterson trial site

Scott Peterson listens to the judge's ruling Thursday.
Scott Peterson listens to the judge's ruling Thursday.

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The defense argues Scott Peterson's trial should be moved from Modesto, California, because he can't receive a fair trial. CNN's Rusty Dornin reports. (January 8)
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Scott Peterson
Mark Geragos
Crime, Law and Justice

(CNN) -- A judge agreed Thursday to move Scott Peterson's murder trial outside of Peterson's hometown of Modesto, California, after the defense argued pre-trial publicity clouded the potential jury pool.

Prosecutors tried to persuade Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami to reverse an earlier, tentative decision to change the venue, but were unsuccessful.

"The court has taken the first step toward ensuring a fair trial in this case and I think that is something that everyone is interested in doing except the prosecution," said Peterson defense attorney Mark Geragos.

Both sides in the case were to give estimates on how much time they will need for jury selection and how much time they expect their witnesses will take in a trial.

That information will be considered by the Judicial Council of the state's court system, a process that could take several weeks. The council will ultimately present the judge with three possible venues for the trial, and Girolami will choose one.

Peterson's trial is scheduled for January 26, but most likely will be postponed now that there's a change in location.

Girolami said he was not leaning toward moving the trial to Los Angeles as the defense had suggested. Instead, he said he wants to consider a community within driving distance so there is minimal inconvenience to trial witnesses.

Last week, Geragos argued that the best place for his client to obtain a fair trial would be in Los Angeles County. He also said the Bay Area and Northern California would have less bias against his client.

Girolami had several options: He could keep the case in Modesto; order it moved out of the county; or select jurors in another county and bus them to the Stanislaus County courthouse each day of the trial.

Peterson, 31, is charged in the killings of his 27-year-old wife, Laci, and their unborn son. At an arraignment hearing earlier this month, Peterson denied the charges. (Full story)

Laci Peterson was last heard from Christmas Eve 2002. She was eight months pregnant. Scott Peterson a fertilizer salesman, told police he left to go fishing that morning and she was not there when he returned late that afternoon.

In April 2003 the bodies of Laci and the couple's unborn son washed up on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay, just miles from where Scott Peterson said he had been fishing. He was arrested days later in San Diego and brought back to Modesto to face murder charges. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Both sides cited Manson trial

According to a survey conducted by prosecutors, 61 percent of potential jurors in Modesto said they had not made up their mind about Scott Peterson, while 39 percent said they believe he is guilty.

Both the prosecution and defense used the survey results to argue their case.

Geragos first filed for a change of venue last month (Full story). Using the 1970 murder trial of Charles Manson as a precedent, Geragos stated that "in a case of massive publicity Los Angeles County will necessarily always be the venue of choice since the adversities of publicity are offset by a trial being conducted in a populous metropolitan area."

Judge Al Girolami reads his venue decision.
Judge Al Girolami reads his venue decision.

Last week, the prosecution made its case against moving the trial location out of Stanislaus County. (Full story)

Prosecutors cited the same People v. Manson case as a reason not to move the trial: Because Charles Manson did not receive a change of venue out of Los Angeles in spite of massive pretrial publicity, District Attorney James Brazelton argued, Scott Peterson also could receive a fair trial in the county where his crime was allegedly committed.

Manson and five of his followers were convicted in 1971 of murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the brutal killings of actress Sharon Tate and six others.

In his rebuttal argument filed on Tuesday, Geragos repeated his contention that Stanislaus County is too small and the citizens too involved in the case for the defendant to obtain a fair trial.

"Potential jurors in Los Angeles County or otherwise remote from Stanislaus County are far less likely to have had such an intimate involvement with this matter," Geragos wrote.

CNN producer Chuck Afflerbach contributed to this report.

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