Tears and Tactics

updated 05/19/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/19/2003 01:00AM

Floral shops in Modesto, Calif., which are usually closed on Sunday, stayed open just to keep up with calls from around the country—and even abroad—ordering arrangements for Laci Peterson. Over at the First Baptist Church, some 3,000 people showed up for the memorial service on May 4—the day that Laci would have turned 28—to mourn for her and her unborn son, Conner. Marveled her brother Brent: "She would not believe all this is happening for her." One of the highlights was a video diary of Laci's life, starting from her infancy. A family friend also read a poem left on a Web site, along with 144,000 other condolence notes, that Laci's mother, Sharon Rocha, thought captured her daughter's spirit.

For the Defense: Mark Geragos

One name not uttered at the memorial service was that of Laci's accused killer, husband Scott Peterson, 30, who at the time was sitting a few blocks away in a cell in the Stanislaus County Jail. But Scott is not without supporters. Two days before the memorial he hired Mark Geragos of Los Angeles as his lawyer. A veteran of several high-profile' cases—he has represented Winona Ryder and Gary Condit, among others—Geragos is considered one of the most skilled criminal-defense attorneys at the California bar. Says victims' rights attorney Gloria Allred: "Now that Mark Geragos is on the case, all bets are off."

Curiously, this is the same Mark Geragos who, days before, while analyzing Peterson's prospects on a TV talk show, had concluded that the accused didn't have much of a chance. In the interview he declared that the circumstantial evidence—including the fact that Peterson had been having an affair, that the bodies washed up near where he said he had gone fishing and that he had tide charts of the area—was almost "overwhelming." "You combine all that together," said Geragos, 45, "there's a lot of guys sitting in state prison on a lot less evidence." Now the lawyer says that a visit with Peterson's mother, Jackie, changed his mind. "I heard things that I had never heard before that had not been out in the press," says Geragos. Among his colleagues Geragos is considered especially adept at deflecting negative p.r., which should come in handy with Peterson, given that polls show a large majority of those surveyed believe he is guilty. One of the first things that Geragos did was mount a vigorous effort to make sure that the arrest and search warrants remained sealed, thus preventing any more prejudicial information from leaking out. Says Steven Cron, a criminal-defense lawyer in L.A.: "Peterson needs someone like Mark, who knows how to deal with the media."

It is widely believed that Geragos will argue that because of all the pretrial publicity, the proceedings should be moved to another venue. He has also signaled that he intends to mount a very ambitious defense. At a hearing on May 5 he vowed that his goal was not simply to get Peterson acquitted but to actually prove him innocent, and in the process, "find out who did this to Scott's wife and son." As part of his spin control he warned against a "voodoolike" police investigation and hinted at bombshell disclosures to come. He insists that investigators for the Peterson family have come up with "eye-opening and mind-boggling" findings. Presumably Geragos, who won't say whether he will waive his fee or not, is not referring to the $1 million-plus it could cost to see the case through trial.

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