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Laci Peterson case: Husband ordered to stand trial for murder

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Editor's Note: As part of CNN.com's new Crime section, we are archiving some of the most interesting content from CourtTVNews.com. This story was first published in 2003.

(Court TV) -- A judge ruled Tuesday that prosecutors have enough evidence to try Scott Peterson for the murder of his pregnant wife and unborn son.

Superior Court Judge Al Girolami issued the ruling moments after the final prosecution witness in the 11-day hearing testified.

Peterson, dressed in a black suit and red tie, sat stonefaced as the judge announced his decision. His defense did not call any witnesses at the hearing and his lawyer later said he had prepared Peterson in advance for the outcome.

Peterson will be arraigned Dec. 3 and his trial will begin by February if he does not waive his right to a speedy trial, as most expect him to do.

The 31-year-old fertilizer salesman faces the death penalty if convicted of two counts of murder. Prosecutors contend he killed his wife, Laci, who was nearly eight months pregnant with their first child, and then dumped her body in the San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve. Peterson insists the fishing trip he took that day was entirely innocuous and someone else murdered his 27-year-old wife.

Outside the courtroom, his lawyer downplayed the significance of the ruling, saying the low standard of evidence required to hold someone for trial made the decision a fait accompli.

"The standard unfortunately in California is ... 'Is the defendant breathing?'" lawyer Mark Geragos said.

A spokesman for the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office agreed that the result was not a surprise.

"We expected to get a hold order and that's what occurred," said Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold.

The decision capped a hearing that stretched more than four weeks, perhaps 10 times the length of such a proceeding in a less high-profile case. Although prosecutors revealed some new information about their tightly guarded case, there were none of the bombshells that were expected from both sides.

The county prosecutor had promised the hearing would "open some eyes" about Peterson's guilt, while the defense predicted that information would be revealed which would completely exonerate Peterson.

In the end, Peterson's lawyers did not identify what they have called the crime's "true perpetrator," and prosecutors did not put Peterson's mistress, massage therapist Amber Frey, on the stand, nor explain exactly how and when they believe Peterson killed his wife and disposed of her body.

With the exception of one piece of DNA evidence  a hair in Peterson's boat that genetically matches his wife  all the prosecution's evidence was circumstantial.

The prosecution is under no obligation, however, to disclose its entire case at the preliminary hearing.

"We put on some of the evidence, but not all of it," Goold said.

On Tuesday, prosecutors called their final witnesses, two law enforcement officers who fleshed out more of the circumstantial case against Peterson.

Investigator Stephen Jacobson testified that Frey and Peterson exchanged 241 phone calls during their relationship which began with a fix-up date on Nov. 19 and ended at Frey's request Feb. 19.

According to phone records related by Jacobson, the pair talked six times on Dec. 9, the same day Peterson bought the fishing boat prosecutors say he used to dispose of his wife's body. Jacobson said the pair spoke 23 times in the two days following Laci Peterson's disappearance.

Jacobson also linked nine cell phone calls Peterson placed on Christmas Eve to the location of specific cellular towers, allowing detectives to reconstruct his movements that day. The calls and locations were mostly consistent with the account Peterson gave police with one exception: The analysis placed him near his home about a half hour later than when he said he left for his fishing trip.

In addition, Modesto Police Detective Jon Buehler, the officer who worked most closely with Frey, described interviewing her and listening in on her recorded phone calls with Peterson.

"She stated he told her that not only had he never been married, but he had never been in a serious relationship before," Buehler said. When Peterson began dating Frey, he had been married for five years.

Buehler also said that when Frey asked Peterson why he had not told her sooner that his wife had gone missing, he told her "he was longing to hold on to her."

As the officer displayed photos of Frey and Peterson in formal wear at a Christmas party, Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, who was seated in the front row, began crying.

Buehler acknowledged on cross-examination that Peterson never tried to dissuade Frey from contacting authorities. In fact, he said, when in one recorded conversation she asked Peterson what was to stop her from taking "this" to police, he told her the decision was hers. What "this" referred to was not made clear in court.

The officer also testified that when he arrested Peterson outside a San Diego golf course in April, he was carrying nearly $15,000 in cash, camping gear, four cell phones and his brother's driver's license.

With the preliminary hearing over, the next legal battle in the case likely will concern the defense request for a change of venue. Geragos said he had already written a motion to move the trial away from Modesto because of saturation coverage in the local press.

Judge Girolami asked both sides to consider picking jurors from neighboring San Joaquin County and busing them to Modesto for the trial. Outside court, Geragos implied he did not think Stockton, the county seat of San Joaquin, was far enough away.

"Generically speaking, there's a problem doing that in a case that is in roughly the same media market," he said.

The district attorney's office, however, saw it differently.

"You could argue, 'where are you going to go anywhere?" Goold said. "People are watching this coast to coast." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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