Judge rejects request to close Peterson preliminary hearing to public

Friday, August 15th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MODESTO, Calif. (AP) _ The judge in Scott Peterson's double murder trial rejected a defense request to close a preliminary hearing despite arguments that opening it to the public would ``poison'' the jury pool.

Defense lawyers said allowing public access to the hearing, scheduled for Sept. 9, would the let the media learn the identities of some witnesses and perpetuate irresponsible speculation in the intensely covered case.

Media lawyers argued that no preliminary hearings in high-profile cases _ including those for O.J. Simpson and actor Robert Blake _ have been closed in almost two decades. Preliminary hearings in California are like minitrials, with testimony from witnesses. At the end, a judge decides whether the case goes to trial.

In ruling to keep the hearing open, Judge Al Girolami said Thursday the Peterson case ``is not unlike other high-profile cases.''

Peterson, 30, has pleaded innocent in the killing of his pregnant wife, Laci Peterson, who vanished on Christmas Eve, and their unborn son. The bodies washed ashore in April along the San Francisco Bay.

Scott Peterson's defense attorney Mark Geragos said an open discussion of the evidence would ``poison'' the jury pool, adding that some evidence presented at the preliminary hearing may be excluded from the trial.

``It's going to create wild speculation,'' Geragos told the judge. ``There's no way if we have an open hearing to rein in or control how that information gets out.''

Media attorney Rochelle Wilcox, who represents several national TV networks, argued that an open hearing ``is the only way to assure that what gets to the public is accurate.''

After the ruling, Geragos backed away from his initial reluctance to let cameras in the courtroom. Prosecutors also had filed a motion to block television coverage.

``The accuracy of the information when it's not televised is always suspect,'' Geragos said.

The judge said he probably will decide within several days whether to allow cameras.

The prosecution and defense are next due in court Sept. 2 for a discovery hearing.