CBSN

Speedy Trial Unlikely In Laci Case

Scott Peterson is led into Stanislaus County Superior Court Monday, April 21, 2003, in Modesto, Calif. Peterson pleaded innocent to killing his pregnant wife Laci, and their unborn son Conner, as the district attorney filed murder charges and said he would probably seek the death penalty.
AP
Murder cases like the one triggered by Laci Peterson's death, legal experts say, can take three to five years to go to trial.

The district attorney has alleged that Scott Peterson killed his wife at their Modesto home late Dec. 23 or early Dec. 24. He also claimed a special double-murder circumstance, allowing him to consider seeking the death penalty.

A controversial law in California allows prosecutors to charge murder in the death of a viable fetus. The body of the couple's unborn child, who would have been named Conner, was also recovered last week. His expected birth date had been in February.

Experts say going after the special double-murder circumstance could trigger a change in the trial location and bring on 10 to 15 years of legal proceedings, common in capital punishment cases.

"It's possible to drag it on and on and on," said David W. Miller, professor of law at University of the Pacific McGeorge Law School in Sacramento.

Her family was making funeral plans for the slaying victim and her unborn child, while Peterson's husband Scott spent a fourth day in jail in California's Stanislaus County.

Even Laci's funeral won't be soon: It could be several weeks before the bodies are released for burial.

Stanislaus County prosecutors plan to decide by May 19 whether to seek the death penalty against Peterson, 30, a fertilizer salesman who pleaded not guilty Monday of killing his wife and unborn son. District Attorney James Brazelton said Tuesday he also hopes for a July preliminary hearing to present evidence necessary to take Peterson to trial, but conceded it could take up to two years before a trial begins.

Court TV anchor Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor, thinks authorities have solid evidence against Scott.

"Every day, throughout March, they were continuing to dive in the Bay Area, which suggested to me that they knew the body was in water," she said on the CBS News Early Show Wednesday. "Now how did they know that? That says to me in that second search of the Covena home [of Laci and Scott Peterson], they found evidence leading them to the water."

She also said she saw investigators taking very careful measurements in the Peterson house.

"The only place I've seen that ever pop up is in the file of a homicide case where they measure and point out to the prosecutor exactly where they found things," she told Early Show co-anchor Harry Smith.

The district attorney has refused to discuss the evidence, but noted it was "quite voluminous" and was both direct and circumstantial.

Peterson, represented by a public defender after an abrupt split last weekend with his private Modesto attorney, also faces a May 6 bail hearing to consider if he will be freed while awaiting his evidentiary hearing and possible trial.

"We will argue for no bail," Brazelton said.

Other lawyers described Peterson's prospects for bail as "slim to none" until prosecutors determine if they'll seek the death penalty.

"Dyeing the goatee, the $10,000, the brother's I.D. — that suggests a flight risk," said Grace.

The Modesto Bee speculated that cost was a reason why Peterson had turned to the public defender's office for legal representation.

Brazelton said that was not unusual.

"For an individual to hire an attorney of the caliber of Mr. McAllister, for example, it would take a fairly substantial amount of money," he said. "I don't know what his finances are."

Modesto Police arrested Peterson last week in San Diego, only days after the bodies of Laci and Conner Peterson washed ashore in San Francisco Bay, three miles from where Peterson said he was fishing when his wife disappeared on Christmas Eve.

Remains of the two are being held at the Contra Costa County Coroner's office as forensic experts continue so-far unsuccessful attempts to determine a cause of death.

Laci Peterson's family members said Monday it could be two weeks before they hold a funeral or formal memorial services for the substitute school teacher who would have turned 28 on May 4.

"In the very near future we have two tough days to get through," said Peterson's stepfather, Ron Grantski.

Contra Costa County Sheriff's Department officials said funeral dates depend on whether they can soon pinpoint precisely how Peterson and her unborn baby died, and how quickly afterward they release the remains to Peterson's family.

"It's not within a few days," said spokesman Jimmy Lee Tuesday.

Lee said authorities may never know how Laci Peterson died. But he said a forensic anthropologist from the University of California at Santa Cruz "will exhaust all procedures to reach a determination."

A trial could very likely be moved out of Stanislaus County to another part of California, Miller said, adding that the intense publicity and close proximity of many Modesto residents to the case "might leave one to think that doing it in another community might lead to a fairer jury."

But Brazelton said he'll oppose any defense attempts to move the trial. "The publicity is widespread," he said. "I don't believe there are fairer jurors anywhere than this county."