Craig Peyer, the fired California Highway Patrol officer charged with murder in the slaying of San Diego State University student Cara Knott, will be tried in San Diego, a Superior Court judge ruled Thursday.
Peyer's attorneys had presented two witnesses during three days of testimony to convince Judge Richard Huffman that extensive pretrial publicity about the killing had prejudiced Peyer's right to a fair trial in San Diego County. The attorneys wanted to move the trial to another city.
"In my mind, the publicity is largely balanced," Huffman said. " . . . There is considerable publicity in support of the defendant, as for the victim." He went on to say that Peyer's attorneys had failed to prove that he "would be unable to obtain a fair trial" in the county.
In making his ruling, Huffman noted that defense attorney Robert Grimes and Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Van Orshoven had made themselves accessible to the press throughout the case and pointed to a lengthy office interview that Grimes gave to the San Diego Tribune earlier this year. But Huffman quickly added that he did not object to the attorneys talking with reporters.
Huffman said that the testimony of pollster Oscar Kaplan, an SDSU psychology professor and director of the university's survey research, and Duke University social psychologist John B. McConahay had failed to convince him that the community was largely prejudiced against Peyer. Both men testified for the defense.
Kaplan testified that a poll he conducted in October showed that 95% of 400 county residents questioned were aware of the murder charge filed against Peyer, and 63% of those questioned believed that he killed Knott. McConahay testified that a second survey he conducted showed that 94% of county residents had heard about the case and 50% of those familiar with the murder thought that Peyer was guilty.
Despite his ruling, Huffman said that he did not close the door to a possible change of venue before Peyer's scheduled trial in January. If he decides to exclude blood samples and fibers from the evidence gathered by prosecutors, Huffman said that he will give defense attorneys another opportunity to argue for a change of venue.
During Peyer's preliminary hearing, prosecutors tied Peyer to the murder through blood samples lifted from Knott's boot and a microscopic fiber that prosecutors said came from his CHP patch and which was found on Knott's bloody sweat shirt. The testimony of blood and fiber experts was widely reported because it marked the first pieces of physical evidence released by investigators that prosecutors said linked Peyer to the murder.
Peyer, 37, is charged with killing Knott, 20, on Dec. 27, between 9 and 10 p.m. Police said that Knott was strangled and her body was thrown 65 feet into a dry creek bed off the old U.S. 395 bridge, near the Mercy Road off-ramp and Interstate 15.
Huffman told the defense attorneys that he would give them "wide latitude" in questioning potential jurors, including the opportunity to question jurors privately. If during the questioning of jurors defense attorneys still believe that Peyer cannot receive a fair trial in San Diego County, Huffman said he will allow them to argue again for a change of venue.