Retired Judge to Preside Over Peterson Trial

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A retired judge whose long experience with high-profile cases dates to the sensational 1970s trial of black militant Angela Davis was picked Wednesday to preside at the double-murder trial of Scott Peterson (search).

Retired Contra Costa County Judge Richard Arnason, 82, was chosen a day after Judge Al Girolami decided to move the trial to the San Francisco Bay (search) area because of hostility toward Peterson in his dead wife's hometown of Modesto (search).

The trial is scheduled to start Monday but will probably be postponed. Prosecutors asked for two weeks to move their operation to San Mateo County, and a hearing is scheduled later this week to discuss a delay.

Peterson, 31, is charged with two counts of murder for allegedly killing his pregnant wife, Laci, and unborn son just before Christmas 2002 and dumping her body in the San Francisco Bay.

Peterson's lawyers said he had been demonized in the town where the couple lived and Laci Peterson grew up, citing vandalism of his house, crowds yelling "Murderer!" outside the jail and T-shirts sold with Peterson's likeness and the motto: "Modesto, a killer place to live."

Arnason was selected by California Chief Justice Ronald George, in part because officials wanted a retired judge to keep the months-long trial from slowing down local courts.

Arnason presided at the politically charged trial of '60s radical Angela Davis, which he took after five other judges either withdrew or were disqualified. Davis, a former member of the Communist Party, was acquitted of plotting a bloody courthouse shootout during the trial of three black prisoners accused of killing a prison guard.

Arnason is well-regarded for his fair and polite treatment of defendants: convicted felons have been known to hug Arnason, write him letters from prison or thank him for their sentences. In turn, he refers to defendants as "sir" or "ma'am" and does not allow them to be shackled in his courtroom.

One of Davis' defense lawyers, Howard Moore Jr., said he immediately took to Arnason because "he exuded those qualities we wanted in a judge. We wanted a judge who was knowledgeable in the law, let each side be heard and would be reasonable and fair."

Arnason was the oldest of nine children and raised on a wheat and dairy farm in North Dakota. The family moved to California in 1943 after his dad got a wartime job in Oakland's shipyards. Arnason received his law degree two years later.

After lunch Wednesday, he remained holed up in his chambers in Martinez, stepping into the hallway only long enough to decline to answer questions and refuse to have his photograph taken.

The Peterson trial will be held in Redwood City, a bedroom community of 75,000. San Mateo County's tourism bureau offered to host the trial and said local businesses could see an influx of $8 million to $16 million as members of the media arrive.