Judge Calls Coverage Balanced : Motion to Close Hearing for CHP Officer Denied

Times Staff Writer

A Municipal Court judge Wednesday denied a defense motion to close the preliminary hearing for Craig Peyer, the California Highway Patrol officer charged with murdering college student Cara Knott.

In denying the motion to exclude the press and public from the April 27 preliminary hearing, Judge Frederic L. Link brushed aside arguments by defense attorney Diane Campbell that press coverage of the hearing would prevent Peyer from getting a fair trial.

Link acknowledged that press coverage of Knott's killing and Peyer's arrest has been "massive," but he added that the "publicity to date has been very balanced." In addition, Link noted that "the actual coverage of the evidence in this case has been very minuscule."

'Public Has a Right'

"The public has a right to be present," Link said. "The public has a right to judge for themselves that fairness is taking place. I can't say there is a substantial probability that the defendant's right to a fair trial will be damaged" by keeping the preliminary hearing open.

Campbell had argued that Peyer's "right to a fair trial is more important than the public's right to be present." Campbell, who with lawyer Robert Grimes is defending Peyer, said that an open preliminary hearing--and even factual press reports of the proceedings--would make it difficult to select a jury that has not been tainted by publicity in the case.

"Even factual, accurate reporting makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get a jury that has not been exposed to this case," Campbell said.

She argued that, as a practical matter, closing the preliminary hearing was necessary because it would help ensure a fair trial while only temporarily keeping information from the public.

"The intensity of the press coverage (at the preliminary hearing) will effect how the evidence will be disseminated among the public. The preliminary is not a trial. The public will see and know everything at trial," Campbell said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas McArdle said his position is that all preliminary hearings should remain open. Besides, he said, the case would be the subject of publicity whether the hearing is open or closed.

"There has been a great deal of publicity," McArdle said. "There will be a great deal more publicity. It doesn't matter whether the preliminary is open or closed. It would be far better from the defendant's standpoint that the media get its information directly in the courtroom, first-hand and accurate. A fair trial depends on an impartial jury, not an ignorant jury."

Press Reports Criticized

Peyer's attorneys have complained that some press reports about the contents of a sealed, 50-page affidavit filed by prosecutors have been inaccurate. The document lists evidence in the case and was used by the prosecution to obtain Peyer's arrest warrant.

Throughout Wednesday's hearing, Knott's parents, brother and two sisters sat in the courtroom, across the aisle from Peyer, 36, and his wife, Karen.

Peyer, a 13-year CHP veteran, was arrested Jan. 15 and charged with murder in the strangulation of Knott, 20. He allegedly pulled her over the night of Dec. 27 near an isolated Interstate 15 off-ramp. Her body was thrown off a 75-foot-high bridge. Peyer is free on $1-million bail.

Link also denied a motion by Campbell to delay the preliminary hearing an additional two weeks. Earlier this month, Link granted a defense request and postponed the hearing a week until April 27. On Wednesday, Campbell asked for a new delay to give defense investigators time to analyze evidence.

"The defense has had more than enough time to prepare for this case," Link said.

Link also settled a dispute between the defense and prosecution over the sharing of evidence in the case. Campbell had complained that prosecutors were handing over evidence in their possession too slowly.

Since Link ordered both sides to refrain from publicly discussing evidence in the case, both sides have refused to comment on Link's order about sharing evidence.

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