REDWOOD CITY, Calif. — Space is at a premium and even comes at a hefty price on the "campus" surrounding the county courthouse where former fertilizer salesman Scott Peterson began pretrial proceedings Monday for allegedly killing his wife and unborn son.
A 20-minute hearing in the trial that recently moved to this San Francisco Peninsula suburb amounted to a dress rehearsal for proceedings expected to last at least six months and to attract national attention.
The blocks surrounding the courthouse have turned into an encampment for more than 300 reporters, producers, photographers and cameramen from dozens of news agencies who are credentialed to cover the trial.
A city of tents has sprouted outside the courthouse, and television outlets are being asked to put up $51,000 each -- and possibly more -- for the duration of the trial. The city is charging $7,500 a month for on-street parking for television microwave and satellite trucks, and $200 a month to park cars in a graveled lot.
Surplus office space near the courthouse is being converted into a large newsroom for members of the print media, who listen to the court proceedings under the watchful eye of a bailiff.
City and county officials say they are only trying to recoup the costs of hosting one of the most closely watched murder cases of recent years. "We surely don't want to gouge the media ... or anyone," said San Mateo County Supervisor Mike Nevin. "We want to cover costs."
The state should pick up court costs of the trial, Nevin said, but that will not cover extra security, electrical generators, trash bins, portable toilets, road striping and wiring to handle the influx of media and the public.
San Mateo County, like others, is facing a budget deficit. Though spending by the media and others may be a boon to local hotels and restaurants, Nevin said he expects county government to spend more than it takes in.
"We are down to bone marrow, and this was a terrible time to ask any county to do this," he said. "But we are more than willing to step up to the plate."
On Monday, Peterson -- wearing a gray suit and appearing relaxed -- waved to his family when he arrived.
Retired Alameda County Superior Court Judge Alfred Delucchi, who was assigned the case last week, wasted no time in denying a request by news media to televise the trial live, as the O.J. Simpson murder trial was. The defense and prosecution opposed the request.
An attorney representing broadcast companies urged Delucchi to allow cameras. "The case affects people because it involves a regular family," Rochelle Wilcox said. "It's important for the public to see what goes on here."
Karl Olson, a San Francisco attorney for newspapers including The Times, made similar arguments for allowing cameras and pointed out that coverage of Sunday's Super Bowl featured front page photos in newspapers.
Delucchi retorted, "This isn't the Super Bowl." He added that the main reason he was banning cameras was so "Mr. Peterson gets a fair trial."
The judge granted a request by defense attorney Mark Geragos to delay the pre-trial proceedings for a week while the attorney handles a homicide case in Pasadena.
Geragos also is defending singer Michael Jackson, who faces child molestation charges in Santa Barbara County, where officials say they collected $40,000 for media parking but still lost money during a Jan. 16 hearing attended by more than 1,500 fans and media representatives.
Peterson lacks Jackson's celebrity, but his case has captivated many people and provided fodder for books and months of cable television shows, with commentators dissecting developments and speculating on his guilt or innocence.
Peterson told authorities he returned from a fishing outing on Dec. 24, 2002, and found his wife, Laci, missing. Four months later, her body and that of their unborn son were recovered in San Francisco Bay not far from the marina where Peterson said he launched his boat.
Peterson has admitted to an extramarital affair but has denied killing his wife. His attorney has dismissed the prosecution's case as being based on weak circumstantial evidence.
After the defense was granted a change of venue, officials in San Mateo County braced for a media invasion like the one that hit the Modesto courthouse during the preliminary hearing.
John Goold, a chief deputy district attorney for Stanislaus County, said pretrial motions could take up to two weeks, jury selection a few more weeks -- and the entire trial four to six months, not counting the penalty phase if Peterson is convicted.
San Mateo County housed newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst when she was on trial in San Francisco for a bank robbery after her 1974 kidnapping by the Symbionese Liberation Army. And the murder trial of Joe Hunt, founder of the so-called Billionaire Boy's Club, was conducted here in 1992.
The Peterson trial is expected to draw similar attention.
"I don't know where they will put everyone," Goold said last week.