MODESTO, Calif. – Scott Peterson (search ) pleaded not guilty at his arraignment Wednesday to charges that he murdered his wife Laci and their unborn son Conner — charges that could send him to death row.
Also during the arraignment, Judge Al Girolami (search) set Peterson's trial date for Jan. 26 after Peterson exercised his right to a speedy trial. He could have had up to two months between the arraignment and the opening day of the trial.
The fast-track approach to the trial date marked a shift in the defense's strategy, but defense attorney Mark Geragos (search ) said he was ready to present his case to a jury.
"The defense either believes the prosecution does not have a strong case, or it believes the prosecution's case will only get stronger as time passes, so why not try it now," said Fox News legal analyst Stan Goldman.
The Jan. 26 date will likely be moved back, however, because the defense is seeking a change of venue.
Wednesday's hearing, which lasted under an hour, proved victorious for the defense team on two issues: Peterson's pickup truck was ordered returned to him by Dec. 18, and he was to have the $15,000 he had when he was arrested given back by Friday to help pay his legal bills, Fox News learned.
During the arraignment at Stanislaus County Superior Court, prosecutors argued that Peterson bled inside the truck he allegedly used to transport the body of his dead wife.
The judge is also expected to schedule hearings for Peterson's defense attorneys to challenge wiretaps and the use of GPS devices that tracked Peterson.
Additionally, Peterson's attorneys were challenging the use of cadaver-sniffing dogs used to search for Laci's scent in the boat her husband said he took fishing the day she vanished.
The defense has said it will ask to move the trial out of Stanislaus County because of extensive news coverage.
Geragos said he doesn't believe Peterson would be able to get a fair and impartial jury in the Modesto area, where the crimes took place. The defense team has until Dec. 12 to file the change of venue motion. The matter will be argued in court Jan. 6.
Last month, the judge asked both sides to research whether a jury could be selected in neighboring San Joaquin County and bused to the courthouse each day for trial.
The defense got what it wanted Wednesday in the return of Peterson's truck, which prosecutors have indicated will be a central part of their case.
Geragos, who is simultaneously representing Michael Jackson, wanted prosecutors to return Peterson's pickup truck. But prosecutors stated in court papers that they didn't want to release the 2002 Ford pickup because they believe it was used in the murder.
Stanislaus County District Attorney James Brazelton (search) said he wanted jurors to view the pickup truck as part of the crime scene because it was used to haul Laci Peterson's body to her husband's fertilizer warehouse and then to San Francisco Bay.
But the judge didn't buy that reasoning, saying photographs should suffice. He ordered the vehicle returned to the Peterson family, which the defense requested because Peterson faces mounting legal bills and continues to pay $643 in monthly auto payments.
Prosecutors had never previously indicated that they believed Peterson was wounded during or after the killing and they had never theorized where Laci was killed, even during the 11 days of testimony in the preliminary hearing.
Peterson has said he was wounded in his work as a fertilizer salesman and that's why there was blood found on the door and visor of his truck.
The mention that Laci's body was trucked to Peterson's warehouse indicates the prosecution will argue she may have been killed at the couple's home and could explain why lawyers grappled at the preliminary hearing over a mop and bucket used to clean up the kitchen area in the couple's house.
The charges Peterson faces say his wife was killed on Dec. 23 or Dec. 24. Authorities believe her body was weighted down and tossed into the bay.
Brazelton said in the court papers that cement-like material was found in the bed of the pickup truck. A detective at the preliminary hearing said there was evidence Peterson fashioned several cement anchors using a bucket in his warehouse, but only one of those anchors was found in his boat.
Peterson had previously pleaded not guilty to the murder charges in April after his arrest, but had to face them again Wednesday after a judge decided last month there was enough evidence for prosecutors to take the case to trial.
Laci Peterson, 27, a substitute teacher who was eight months pregnant with the couple's first child, was reported missing Christmas Eve when her husband returned from a purported fishing trip at the Berkeley Marina. Her remains and her fetus washed ashore a few miles from the marina in April.
Fox News' Claudia Cowan and The Associated Press contributed to this report.