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The retired Contra Costa County judge who will preside over the high-profile Scott Peterson murder case is a death penalty expert and legend in the East Bay legal community. Richard Arnason was selected Wednesday by Chief Justice Ronald George to preside over the Peterson trial, scheduled to start Monday. One attorney calls the 82-year-old jurist “the voice of reason” in the criminal justice system. “He is the most experienced homicide judge in the state of California,” said Lawrence Barnes, a former Contra Costa County prosecutor who tried three death penalty cases in Arnason’s courtroom. Peterson is accused of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, and their unborn son before Christmas 2002. Because the case has generated so much media attention, Stanislaus County Judge Aldo Girolami ordered the case out of the county so attorneys could pick an impartial jury. Girolami decided Tuesday to send the case to San Mateo County, where civic leaders expect the media throng and other trial participants to pump up to $16 million into the local economy. Through a clerk, Arnason declined to comment Wednesday. However, attorneys say high-profile cases are old hat to the Hensel, N.D.-born judge. The retired jurist has a well-earned reputation for fairness, courtesy and humanity. “He would not be cowed by the circumstances,” said David Headley, a deputy public defender who has tried 10 cases in Arnason’s courtroom. The judge’s expertise with high-profile cases dates back to the 1970s when he presided over Angela Davis’ murder and conspiracy trial in Marin County. Davis was acquitted. Since then, Arnason has handled many of Contra Costa County’s major murder cases. In August 2002, Arnason sentenced Soknoeun Nem to 50 years in prison for killing prominent Alamo plastic surgeon Kim Fang during a home invasion robbery attempt. The judge also presided over the trial of Cory Williams, a 24-year-old man who was sentenced to death for the 1995 slaying of a popular Concord Mexican restaurant owner and her daughter. Attorneys for the Peterson trial can expect Arnason to run a tight ship. He arrives daily at the Martinez courthouse at 6-6:30 a.m., lawyers say. “We don’t know exactly when, because he gets there before anybody,” said Harold “Hal” Jewett, who leads the Contra Costa County district attorney’s homicide team. During trials, Arnason expects attorneys to have their witnesses ready and be prepared to begin at 8:30 a.m. That way, when jurors arrive at 9 a.m. their time is not wasted. The timetable forces attorneys to work earlier hours so they can talk to witnesses before they report to court. Attorneys say Arnason’s abilities are undiminished by age. He’s a shrewd student of death penalty law who controls his courtroom and commands respect. “He likes a brisk presentation,” said Barnes, who is now an assistant district attorney in Modoc County. “He does not like a disorganized, slow presentation, particularly from prosecutors.” Jewett agreed. “He doesn’t like to get bogged down in technical areas that he believes are secondary to the case,” he said. “A common refrain from him is ‘move along.’” Arnason looms so large in the Contra Costa County legal community, it’s hard to find someone who finds fault with the jurist, who helped to establish a scholarship for defendants who turn their lives around. When the judge celebrated his 80th birthday in 2001, he was feted by the legal community, and the local bar association devoted an issue of their monthly newsletter to him. Prosecutors praise Arnason for his fairness and courtesy, a sentiment that was echoed by the defense bar. “The defense is very fortunate; you could not get a better person to pick as your trial judge,” said Michael Markowitz, a criminal defense attorney with Danville’s Gagen, McCoy, McMahon & Armstrong, who has also tried cases in front of the judge. Markowitz called Arnason “the voice of reason in the criminal justice system.” “It’s a very good place to be for both sides,” said Headley, the deputy public defender who represented Nem. Arnason is humane to everyone in his courtroom, including the accused, said Contra Costa Public Defender David Coleman. “The word that comes to my mind is courtly,” Coleman said. “He always bids defendants, ‘good luck.’ It’s something that he genuinely wants, no matter what’s the outcome of the case.” Arnason is the oldest of nine brothers and sisters. His experience working on his family’s North Dakota wheat and dairy farm set the tone for his work ethic, said First District Court of Appeal Justice James Marchiano, a close friend of Arnason’s. “He learned to get up early in the morning and have a full day of activities.” Marchiano also traces Arnason’s dry wit to his family’s roots. Arnason’s grandparents immigrated from Iceland, a culture with “a wonderful understated sense of humor.” Arnason’s family moved to Oakland in 1943. Soon afterward Arnason enrolled in what was then known as the University of California School of Jurisprudence, now Boalt Hall School of Law. After he passed the bar, he worked in private practice until Gov. Pat Brown appointed him to the bench in 1963. He officially retired in 1995 but has continued to handle a full caseload while sitting on assignment. Contra Costa County Presiding Judge Laurel Brady says she has not decided what to do with several pending murder cases that Arnason was supposed to hear over the next few months. In a 2002 interview with the Contra Costa County Bar Association, Arnason recalled the rough-and-tumble trials of his early career. “There was no discovery of any kind,” the judge said. “There were no police reports � trials were spontaneous. You might say it was so much more sitting on the edge of your seat because you never knew what was going to come.”

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