MODESTO, Calif. – A judge ruled Thursday that Scott Peterson (search) cannot get a fair trial in his dead wife's hometown and ordered the case moved out of the county.
Judge Al Girolami said extensive news coverage of the case, including 8,000 articles published worldwide and more than 150 stories in the local newspaper alone, swayed him to agree with the defense that the trial should not be held in Modesto (search). He did not immediately say where the trial would be held.
"A change of venue is necessary to protect the integrity of the proceeding," Girolami said.
The trial was scheduled for Jan. 26 in Modesto, but will most likely be postponed now that the location has been changed.
Peterson, a 31-year-old fertilizer salesman, is charged with two counts of murder and faces the death penalty in the killings of his wife and unborn son, whose bodies washed ashore in San Francisco Bay several months after Laci Peterson's Christmas Eve disappearance. Peterson denies killing his wife and says he was fishing the day she disappeared.
Prosecutors argued that news coverage of the case is so widespread that moving the trial would be pointless.
But defense lawyer Mark Geragos (search) said in court papers that Peterson has been demonized and that the prosecution's argument "can be boiled down to the old adage, 'Sure we can give him a fair trial, then we will take him out and hang him.'"
The judge said a number of other factors also influenced his decision. He said that though the population of Stanislaus County has grown significantly from its rural roots, there are still 15 larger counties in California where it would be easier to find jurors who know less about the case.
Girolami said coverage of the case had raised Scott Peterson from a regular citizen to a notorious one, while simultaneously heightening the celebrity level of Laci Peterson.
He referred to more than 100 people who gathered outside the Stanislaus County Jail to await Peterson after his arrest last year, and contrasted it with blood drives in honor of Laci Peterson and the 3,000 people who attended her internationally televised memorial service.
In addition, thousands of people fanned out across Central California to search for her, and there has been talk of naming a park for her and the boy the couple planned to name "Conner."
Girolami had several options: Keep the case in Modesto; move it out of the county; or select a jury in another county and bus them to Stanislaus County every day.
Geragos said surveys showed there was less bias against Peterson in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Alameda and Santa Clara counties.
He cited numerous examples of the hostility against Scott Peterson. When he was brought in for booking, a crowd of more than 100 people waited outside the jail, some shouting "murderer." Peterson's house was vandalized twice. And T-shirts have been sold with Peterson's likeness and the motto: "Modesto, a killer place to live."
"The depth of pretrial animosity ... is obvious to any breathing human being in Stanislaus County," Geragos wrote.
Prosecutors blamed much of the publicity on Geragos' "media grandstanding" and said he was trying to inflame the court by hurling invective and accusations.