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Peterson Case Judge Allows Unsealing of Docs: Not Yet

Aired June 12, 2003 - 14:30   ET


HEIDI COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: As promised we are going to head straight to Modesto, California. Our CNN's Rusty Dornin is standing by to give us the very latest on some new legal developments in the Laci Peterson case this afternoon.
Hi, Rusty.

RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Heidi, it's a little complicated. We did receive a document that unseals the search warrants in the Scott Peterson case. Now these are the search warrants before he was arrested that have been under contention.

But on the other hand, the ruling does say that it will not happen until one day after the Fifth District Court of Appeals issues its final okay.

Now we talked to the D.A.'s office, they said they're still taking a look at the ruling. They were a little confused by it. But it looks like by July 7, if they receive an approval from the Fifth District court of appeals, they will unseal the warrants.

Now, of course, this gives time for the defense or the prosecution to file an appeal with the Fifth District court of appeals. So it doesn't necessarily mean that they will be opened on July 8. It only means they will if neither side appeals it.

Now in this ruling, Judge Roger Beauchesne said that one of the reasons he decided to unseal the warrants is that the defense was saying, "Look, there could be other suspects out there, you'd be alerting other suspects in this case."

They had what they called an in camera hearing last Friday or, excuse me, a week ago. And during that time the judge said the defense did not present any evidence that there was any other real suspects out there and based on that he has decided to grant the unsealing of these warrants.

In some other news connected here, we do hear from a source that there's a buzz in the courthouse that there could also a gag order coming down sometime soon.

And also the preliminary hearing that was scheduled for July 16, it looks like the prosecutors are claiming that a few of the very important witnesses, namely one of the pathologists, will be on vacation, so it looks like they may delay that July 16 hearing -- Heidi. COLLINS: Rusty, any idea what this sort of information or this sort of decision, I guess we can finally say at this point, will do to the Peterson family?

DORNIN: Well, to the Peterson family, as I said, the defense all along has argued that it could predispose, it could hurt their client's chance for a fair trial because much of the search warrants, of course, were slanted against Scott Peterson. They didn't want to see these things come out right now. So the Peterson family, I'm sure, might be disappointed by this.

COLLINS: All right. CNN's Rusty Dornin, live in Modesto for us this afternoon. Thanks so much, Rusty.

We want to go ahead and bring in our Jeffrey Toobin, CNN legal analyst, this afternoon to tell us a little bit more about what this could mean. Jeffrey, can you put this into perspective a little more legally for us?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Heidi, I think what the judge was doing was hedging his bets a little bit. Because he's certainly giving an appeals court a chance to overrule him but, perhaps, more importantly I think time may overtake this ruling because he plans -- the way the ruling reads is that it looks like the report will be released July 8.

But the preliminary hearing is scheduled for July, as well. And almost under all circumstances this would have come out at the preliminary hearing, anyway.

So, basically, what seems to be happening is that the autopsy -- the affidavits, these sorts of documents will come out all around the same time, whether they come out in the preliminary hearing or as a result of this ruling in July. It looks like these will be made public.

COLLINS: Jeffrey, is this unusual? I mean, we've already talked about how complicated it seems at this point. How unusual is this?

TOOBIN: Well, the whole situation is very unusual because of all the press interest.

In California, almost always, the affidavits in support of search warrants, autopsy results are public, and they are only sealed if a judge thinks there is a reason to seal them, perhaps, to prevent a defendant from being exposed to undue publicity. That was what the ruling was here.

Everything is unusual in this case because there's so much public interest. But the fact of the disclosure is not that unusual.

COLLINS: And also, we heard Rusty say that it's possible that the Peterson family could be let down a little bit by this ruling. But I'm wondering, from what she told us, Rusty, that is, she said that one of the reasons why they were unsealed, these search warrants were unsealed because the judge felt there was really no proof of other suspects. What does that mean to you?

TOOBIN: I mean, I think all of this is bad news for the defense because one of the, you know, main messages that Mark Geragos and his team has put out is that there are other suspects, there's a satanic cult possibly involved. And here you have the judge disparaging that theory and putting out the police version of the crime.

And what -- just so people know. What an affidavit in support of a search warrant is, is the way cops go to the judge and say, this is why we want to search the house. This is the evidence we have so far. When they point out the evidence they have so far, that is what led them to arrest Scott Peterson. So this is certainly going to be negative information about Scott Peterson, thus the family will be disappointed.

COLLINS: And possibly more negative information, you mentioned, the July 16 preliminary hearing and the possibility and likelihood that that will be delayed because of this recent ruling. Now, another thing that the Peterson family is going to have to think about, such a long, long process.

TOOBIN: Well, you know, I think, though, they might be disappointed in the short run, generally delay favors defendants. It is usually defendants who ask for delays.

One of the things that, frankly, find surprising about Scott Peterson's defense strategy is he seems to want to get this preliminary hearing and get this trial going. Most defendants want to delay things, get -- and you know let the public forget about them a little bit.

We sometimes talk about the Robert Blake case, nearly forgotten now. That was a year between arrests and preliminary hearing. And I think Blake was helped by the fact that the case has sort of faded from public view. That, frankly, would be my inclination, if I were the defense lawyer here. But they seem to think a fast trial is in their interest.

COLLINS: We, of course, will have to wait and see. And we'll always be keeping our eye out.

CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin by telephone this afternoon. Thanks so much Jeffrey.


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