Prosecutor slowly shows Peterson case

November 2, 2003 

The mystery surrounding the Peterson case lives on.

A court-imposed gag order kept evidence securely under wraps for several months, fueling speculation by TV pundits and coffeehouse gossipers.

Did Scott Peterson kill his pregnant wife, Laci, and dump her body in San Francisco Bay? Did Satanists snatch her for an evil ritual? What about his affair, the brown van and hypnotized witnesses?

The wild guessing only added to the mystique surrounding the double-murder case -- one with a Hollywoodlike story-line that started with a seemingly happy young couple about to become parents, and ended in deception and death.

Wait until the preliminary hearing, various media trumpeted. That's when closely guarded evidence will come out, and all will become clear, they assured.

And it is coming out -- but at a trickle, with a heavy dose of droning about mitochondrial DNA. In fact, the first two days of the much-heralded hearing opened with exhaustive technical detail surrounding a single human hair.

Trials begin with opening statements by attorneys on both sides. They lay out in simple terms what they hope to prove, so jurors know what to look for as the evidence unfolds.

But preliminary hearings are different. In this one, Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami -- who has reviewed thousands of pages of documents kept sealed from public view -- needed no introduction.

Consequently, the public is being fed details in bits and pieces, with no real context. And observers continue to rely on incomplete media reports and talking heads whose view of the big picture is, at best, obscured.

"The judge knows where it's going," said legal scholar Michael Vitiello, a criminal law professor with Sacramento's McGeorge School of Law. "He doesn't need the same kind of game plan you would have for a jury."

Pine-Sol, dark warehouse

Among the unlinked pieces of testimony offered Friday:

  • A house cleaner mopped the kitchen floor with water and "a little bit of Pine-Sol," but used chlorine bleach for bathroom floors.

  • Laci Peterson and her sister, Amy Rocha, inherited a "substantial amount" of jewelry that Laci Peterson tried to sell on eBay and at pawn shops.

  • Scott Peterson told police taking a look in his dark warehouse that he didn't have electric lights.

  • The house cleaner said some window blinds were open, some closed.

    Observers -- and there appear to be millions, judging by cable television's interest in the case -- assume the dots will connect eventually.

    A single human hair

    Meanwhile, attorneys assure that there will be more coma-inducing mitochondrial DNA testimony. Monday -- and possibly Tuesday -- hold the promise of one and perhaps two more experts to haggle over the single hair, whose impact has yet to be explained.

    Prosecutors presumably will say that Scott Peterson used his boat to transport his wife's body. The hair, which might be Laci Peterson's and definitely isn't her husband's, an FBI analyst said, was found in needle-nose pliers under a seat in the boat, which Peterson told police he used for sturgeon fishing Dec. 24.

    But after three days of testimony, fixated observers have no idea why the pliers were there or how they might have been used in a crime. Or how Laci Peterson's hair -- if it is hers -- got in the pliers. Peterson bought the boat in early December, when his wife would have been nearly eight months pregnant.

    "Maybe (Scott Peterson) grabbed them from the kitchen drawer," mused Modesto defense attorney Ernie Spokes. "She had access (to the drawer) all the time."

    Bradley Brunon, a prominent Los Angeles defense attorney, agreed that pliers are "a readily transportable item. And there are numerous ways a hair can get in a boat; it could have fallen off Scott's shirt."

    Sturgeon fisherman Ken Moore of Ripon said he uses needle-nose pliers to remove hooks after catching fish. Sturgeon mouths are extremely tough, he said.

    Robert Kisner of Denair, also a sturgeon fisherman, said, "I have five or six pairs of pliers in my boat and more in the toolbox. But my woman's hair is not on any of them."

    No tidy summation

    It's possible that the preliminary hearing -- initially predicted to last five days, and now expected to go longer -- could end without answers to many questions, Brunon said. He said Girolami likely won't need a tidy summation to rule on whether Peterson will stand trial.

    "Judges, by training and experience, can fit random facts together," Brunon said. "The problem is, I don't think the lawyers are particularly doing this with an eye to having (the public) understand it. They'd probably rather spin it later."

    Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.


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