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Retired Judge Is Chosen to Preside Over Peterson Trial

January 22, 2004|Monte Morin | Times Staff Writer

A retired Bay Area judge who has heard such high-profile criminal cases as the murder trial of activist Angela Davis was selected to preside over the murder trial of suspected wife-killer Scott Peterson, court officials announced Wednesday.

Richard E. Arnason, 82, a Contra Costa County judge known for exercising tight control over his courtroom and the media, was chosen to hear the Peterson case by California Chief Justice Ronald M. George.

In a statement issued Wednesday, the California Judicial Council said Arnason is "well-known as a criminal-law expert with extensive death-penalty case experience."

The announcement comes one day after another judge ordered the case moved to the San Francisco Bay Area because Peterson could not get a fair trial in his hometown, where many residents have expressed anger toward the defendant. The case is scheduled to begin Monday, but lawyers say it probably will be postponed.

During his 41 years on the bench, Arnason heard many criminal cases that generated intense public interest. In the Angela Davis case, the militant was charged with murder, kidnapping and conspiracy in connection with a 1970 Marin County court shootout in which four people, including a judge, were killed.

Arnason also oversaw the case of a mother who was charged with child abuse when her 680-pound, 13-year-old daughter died of congestive heart failure in 1996. More recently, Arnason presided over the trial of a former Stockton gang member who was sentenced to life in prison for murdering a retired plastic surgeon in a home-invasion robbery.

On Wednesday, a defense lawyer who represented the mother in the abuse case said Arnason was the ideal choice for such a case as the Peterson trial, because he would work hard to keep lawyers in check.

"He may be in his 80s, but he's got more energy than both those attorneys put together," said Michael Cardoza. "He will be firm, and he won't allow histrionics."

The oldest of nine children, Arnason was raised on a farm in Hensel, N.D., not far from the Canadian border. His family raised grain and cattle. After graduating from the University of North Dakota, Arnason earned a law degree in 1946 from UC Berkeley's School of Jurisprudence -- now Boalt Hall.

Arnason is married and has four grown children.

Peterson, 31, is charged with two counts of murder for allegedly killing his pregnant wife, Laci, just before Christmas 2002 and dumping her body in San Francisco Bay. In April, her remains and those of the fetus she was carrying washed ashore in the bay two miles from where her husband said he had gone fishing on Christmas Eve.

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