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Judge in Peterson Case Denies to Completely Close Hearing

Aired August 14, 2003 - 12:37   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: There are new developments unfolding right now in the whole issue involving Scott Peterson -- that hearing that's continuing in Modesto, California.
CNN's David Mattingly has been inside. He's now outside. He's joining us live.

David -- first of all, we're hearing that Mark Geragos, the criminal defense attorney, has just pulled the request before the judge to bar cameras from covering this preliminary hearing next month. First of all, tell us what you saw and what you heard.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, what's happened here, Wolf, is that Judge Al Girolami has denied a motion by the defense to close the preliminary hearings to the public entirely. The defense wanted these hearings closed in order to protect some of that information that was going to come out to protect Scott Peterson's right to a fair trial. The judge rejected their arguments.

And in response, Geragos has now said that they are going to withdraw their objections to cameras in the courtroom. And he said, what the heck, we might as well open it up and pollute the entire state -- pollute the jury pool we assume that he is referring to. He was arguing that because this is a death penalty case, that every step to protect Scott Peterson's right to a fair trial and the right to get an impartial jury needs to be protected. But the judge did not go along with that argument; the judge, however, listening to the arguments of some of the attorneys representing media interests here.

It was pointed out there had been a number of high-profile cases in California courts recently -- Winona Ryder, the dog mauling case here in San Francisco were just a couple that were named -- where there was a great deal of pretrial publicity that did not affect the outcome.

There was a citing of the John DeLorean case -- if you remember that case -- more than 20 years ago in which a videotape of DeLorean was broadcast on national television, but he was later acquitted in that case. The point being made that a jury does not have to be ignorant of the facts in the case, just impartial. And the judge has gone along with that argument and will not be closing this preliminary hearing to the public.

The issue of cameras in the courtroom, however, is still up in the air. The prosecution is arguing against having those cameras in the courtroom for the preliminary hearing. In fact, just a little while ago, this was passed out outside of the courthouse here. It's from attorneys representing Laci Peterson's family, the Roches. And they are reminding everyone of how painful it is for them to be hearing so many of the details of Laci's death coming out in court. They do not want that broadcast to the public.

One particular line here sums it up. It says: "This is not a story; this is our life."

So, that issue of cameras in the courtroom still up in the air, Wolf, and still to be decided here.

BLITZER: And is there a break now in this hearing that's taking place today? Is that's what's going on? Is there a recess?

MATTINGLY: There was a brief 10-minute break after arguments about closing the hearing, but the judge came back right after that 10 minutes and ruled immediately, saying that this hearing will be open to the public.

We're back in court now. We're hearing arguments about whether or not there should be cameras in the courtroom, and that's what will be decided next -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And will there also be a decision made on whether Mark Geragos violated the gag order by speaking out involving that autopsy that his defense team sought?

MATTINGLY: Well, let's put it this way: The defense may have some explaining to do today. The judge will be asking questions about whether or not the defense team did violate the gag order. That is on the list of things to be discussed today. But whether there is any kind of ruling involved in that remains to be seen.

The district attorney here was also in similar trouble with the judge regarding the gag order, but that's going to be decided in a hearing after the trial is over, if this case does go trial -- Wolf.

BLITZER: One final question, David. The judge made a speedy decision on whether there will be coverage inside during this preliminary hearing scheduled for September 9. He moved very quickly. Do we anticipate he might do the same on the issue of cameras in the courtroom? In other words, will we know today whether there will be cameras in the courtroom in September?

MATTINGLY: I don't have my crystal ball with me, but other people who are in the courtroom right now -- legal experts -- says it's possible the judge could render a decision on this fairly quickly. So, we'll see what happens -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And David Mattingly will tell us as soon as the decision is made. David, thanks very much.

Let's bring back Jeffrey Toobin, our legal analyst, for some analysis.

All right, we've learned that Mark Geragos, now that the judge ruled against him in blocking all coverage inside, has withdrawn his request that cameras be enclosed, suggesting why not just simply pollute, in his words, the entire state. Those are strong words from Mark Geragos.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Frankly, Wolf, I find it kind of puzzling that he's doing that. I think it is not really in his long-term legal interest to sort of give up on this issue, because ultimately if Scott Peterson is convicted and he has to argue on appeal that there was excessive pretrial publicity, the prosecution will be able to say, but you didn't even object to cameras in the courtroom during the preliminary hearing. It would seem to me a more consistent position to say, well, if I can't have the public kept out, I want the cameras kept out.

So, the issue isn't decided yet. It's not clear that cameras will be in the courtroom for the preliminary hearing, but I have to say, I do find Geragos' strategy here kind of puzzling.

BLITZER: Because, as you well remember, last night we were on CNN talking precisely about his strategy, and both of us seemed to think he was asking for a complete ban on coverage so that he would be able to settle for at least no cameras in the courtroom as opposed to reporters sitting there taking notes. And now he's surprised all of us, as you well say, by saying, you know what? Let the cameras go in as well.

TOOBIN: I am delighted to admit that I was wrong about his strategy. I thought it was pretty clear he was trying -- he was asking for a full loaf, hoping to get half a loaf. But that's not what apparently what he's intending to do.

I think, you know, the point David Mattingly raised, the families' objection to cameras in the courtroom is something that the judge is going to take very seriously. So, I don't think this decision is made by any means. The continuing objection by the prosecutors and by the family, I think, remains something that will matter a lot to the judge. But clearly the chances of cameras in the courtroom have gone up considerably by Mark Geragos' decision in the last hour.

BLITZER: And it's further surprising, Jeffrey -- and I want to just point to our viewers, we're looking at these pictures of the president. He's leaving Texas now. He's on his way to California to meet with Marines and also do some fund-raising for his re-election campaign. We'll watch the president shake some hands, sign some autographs in Texas before he flies off to California, not a very long flight from Texas to southern California. He'll be going to the Miramar base near San Diego to speak with some Marines just back from Iraq.

Jeffrey, the other surprising thing, to me at least, about Mark Geragos now withdrawing his request to the judge to ban cameras in the courtroom during the September 9 preliminary hearing involving his client, Scott Peterson, is that if he does say that now, if he does say go ahead and allow the cameras in there, isn't he potentially making it clear that he's at war much more so with the Roche family, Laci Peterson's family, than might otherwise have been the case? There is a lot of sympathy for that family for what it's endured.

TOOBIN: Yet another reason why his decision to withdraw his objection is puzzling. Remember, for a long time after Laci Peterson disappeared, the Rocha family was sympathetic towards their son-in- law, Scott Peterson. I mean, they continued to be in contact. But it has been absolutely clear, though, the Rocha family has been careful not to say the words precisely, that the split is irrevocable, and they are very much on the opposite sides of this case.

So, that is another reason why Mark Geragos' decision today -- I keep returning to this word -- is puzzling.

BLITZER: Yes, he's going to have some explaining to do. Let's see how he does explain, it, given the gag order that is out there as well. It's going to be difficult to explain when he's not allowed to talk.

All, I'm going to ask Jeffrey Toobin to stand by. We're going to wait for more developments in Modesto, California.


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