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Soon after Scott Peterson was arrested in California and charged with the murders of his pregnant wife and their unborn son, reports attributed to “defense sources” began appearing on television channels that had covered the case extensively for months. Until then the only news leaks since Laci Peterson vanished in Modesto, Calif., last December had come from law enforcement. Those reports cast suspicion on the woman’s 30-year-old husband, Scott, and peaked with his April 18 arrest, fueling many hours of speculation by cable television pundits. Among those legal analysts was Mark J. Geragos, the high-profile Los Angeles attorney known for his defense of actress Winona Ryder and Whitewater scandal figure Susan McDougal. Geragos’ shifting role as analyst and lawyer provides a vivid illustration of the era of serial hot cases given nightly parsing by TV legal personalities. At first, the 45-year-old lawyer was circumspect in his comments, arguing for the presumption of Scott Peterson’s innocence against commentators who declared his culpability. But as the news leaks and the speculation multiplied, Geragos changed his stance, at times agreeing with even the most avid of Peterson’s accusers. His strongest comments came when the remains of 27-year-old Laci Peterson and her unborn child washed ashore in San Francisco Bay four months after her disappearance, near the spot where her husband told authorities he was fishing that Christmas Eve. “The most damning piece of circumstantial evidence comes out of his own mouth and his own hands, when he hands to police that receipt from the very location where, two miles away, she’s found,” Geragos said on CNN. “I mean, that is just a devastating thing.” Reports that investigators found research on the bay’s tides and currents the day the woman disappeared on Peterson’s home computer is “some pretty compelling evidence,” Geragos said the day of the arrest. Two weeks later, he was representing Peterson, having taken the case over from public defenders, with Modesto attorney Kirk McAllister as co-counsel. Geragos immediately went on the offensive, publicly declaring Peterson’s innocence and vowing to find the “real killer.” Faced with 6,000 pages of discovery, he assigned two lawyers and three investigators to the case full time, allowing him to spend much of his time at his Los Angeles office. WINONA AND BEYOND It was not the first time the managing partner at Geragos & Geragos had taken a surprising approach to what appeared to be a difficult defense. Last fall he defended Ryder, the actress, against charges related to a shoplifting spree in Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills, Calif. Geragos contended she was the victim of overzealous security guards and was targeted because of her celebrity. She was acquitted of some charges and, although convicted of grand theft and vandalism, was sentenced only to community service. Loyola Law School Professor Stanley Goldman, who also is legal editor for Fox News, followed that case closely. “He showed flashes of absolute brilliance, but his overall theory of the case and approach left something to be desired,” he said. “Mark’s a very affable guy, but he accuses a lot of people of lying on the stand. He has one gear in court, and it’s forward.” Former Atlanta prosecutor Nancy Grace, a Court TV anchor and a frequent commentator on CNN, cited that case when Scott Peterson’s parents hired Geragos to defend their son. “Don’t even get me started on Mark Geragos,” Grace exclaimed in one broadcast. “This guy practically had a jury convinced that the poor security guards at Saks had a vendetta, a conspiracy to get Winona … . So I really think that with Geragos on his side, Peterson has a really good chance.” With California law classifying a fetus as a person, prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Peterson on grounds he committed multiple murders. A preliminary hearing is set for July 16. Geragos has tried about 20 murder cases in his 24-year career and last year had seven cases result in acquittals or hung juries. But at first he declined the case when Peterson’s parents approached him in his Los Angeles office, he said in a recent interview. He had expressed his reluctance on CNN, saying there would be an insurrection by the members of his 12-lawyer firm if he became involved in the case. And yet he seemed to extend an invitation: “Most lawyers, most ethical lawyers, aren’t going to go out and seek the case,” he said on CNN on April 24. “If the family were to come to them, present them with some kind of options, then that’s a completely different issue.” The defendant’s parents, Lee and Jackie Peterson, met with Geragos in Los Angeles a few days later. He visited their son in Modesto the next day. “I told them I didn’t think I was the guy, based on my prior comments” on television, Geragos said in the interview. “But they told me things I didn’t know, and I agreed to go talk to him. I was convinced as to how off-base I was and that a horrible injustice was being done.” Geragos said his friends and colleagues urged him not to take the case, with the exception of his father and law partner, Paul, whose 10-year-old practice he joined during his last year in Loyola Law School in 1979. Since then, his brother, Matthew, has also joined the firm. “Virtually everybody told me it makes no sense to take this case, because Scott was viewed in such a horrible light. He has been tried and convicted in the media,” Geragos said. “But I’m a criminal defense lawyer. And there are some substantial investigative leads that were never followed up on that make a whole lot more sense than Scott having done it.” Mark Geragos became well known in California in the early 1990s, when he defended former Los Angeles City Councilman Art Snyder against felony charges of campaign finance violation and money laundering. Snyder, who had become a lobbyist after his council term, ultimately pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid a fine. WHITEWATER FIGURE In 1998 Geragos won the acquittal of Whitewater figure Susan McDougal on charges she had embezzled funds from orchestra conductor Zubin Mehta and his wife, Nancy, while working as their bookkeeper in California. He characterized McDougal’s prosecution as political, an extension of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s effort to force her testimony against former President Bill Clinton in connection with business transactions in Arkansas. Geragos also won McDougal’s acquittal on charges of obstructing justice in the federal Whitewater investigation. Geragos also succeeded in reducing drunken driving charges against the former president’s brother, Roger Clinton, to misdemeanor reckless driving. He managed to win the dismissal of kidnapping and arson counts against rapper Nathaniel Hale, also known as Nate Dogg, to misdemeanor weapon possession. He also represented ex-U.S. Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., when Condit was subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury in 2001 in connection with the disappearance of Chandra Levy, a Capitol Hill intern from Modesto. LEAKS MULTIPLY Since Geragos entered the Peterson case, leaks attributed to the defense team or “sources close to the defense” have multiplied. The reports include: Laci Peterson was the victim of a Satanic cult; a woman in the defense’s protective custody has information that could exonerate Peterson; and neighbors were suspicious of a brown van the morning the woman disappeared. From the start, Geragos’ theme has been that Modesto police failed to pursue important leads. The Stanislaus County, Calif., prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney John Goold, has said little about the case, except that the investigation is continuing. While Geragos will neither confirm nor deny the news leaks, he notes that much of the television punditry has amounted to wild speculation: Some legal commentators have insisted he is not being paid, although he is being paid well by Peterson’s parents. They have said he would not be able to have an independent autopsy performed, although he expected to do so. And they have suggested he took the case for the publicity. “It has the opposite effect,” Geragos said. His five years of frequent commentary on the cable networks have given way to inaccessibility since taking the Peterson case, except for brief news conferences in Modesto following court hearings and an interview with The National Law Journal. Loyola’s Goldman predicted that the Peterson case will make Geragos “very, very famous.” “He’s a well-known lawyer right now,” Goldman said. “For 20 years, Mark has been interested in getting his name out into the public. This will make him one of the four or five names in criminal defense work in the country you would think of for a high-profile case. And he will be in the news for the next year.”

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