Evidence from bay prompts speculation in Peterson case

09/16/2003 8:35 AM

11/19/2007 1:43 PM

When authorities recovered Laci Peterson's remains on the shore of San Francisco Bay, they also found tape and clear plastic sheeting nearby.

The significance is unknown, given a court-imposed gag order on the double-murder case that prevents either side from discussing evidence.

But that hasn't prevented a host of theories from pundits, observers and experts on what the plastic may or may not mean. There appear to be equal numbers of scenarios presented that support the prosecution's contention that Scott Peterson murdered his pregnant wife and their unborn son, Conner, or that the Modesto man is innocent of the charges.

Connecting the plastic to Scott Peterson could bolster the prosecution's claim that he killed his wife on Dec. 23 or 24, when she was about eight months pregnant, and dumped her body in the bay.

But others argue that a link to Conner could cast doubt on that charge by suggesting that the boy was born before he was killed. Scott Peterson presumably wouldn't have had the opportunity to commit that murder because he came under heavy police surveillance soon after Laci Peterson was reported missing Christmas Eve.

A sizable bundle of the distinctive clear plastic with what appeared to be a length of black electrical tape attached to it was recovered 50 yards from Laci Peterson's remains and was forensically analyzed, according to a source. Results of those tests are not known.

A separate length of black plastic similar to roofing material also was found about 50 yards from the body. The objects appear to be among at least 31 items the defense has asked to examine after they were recovered from the East Bay and logged as potential evidence.

Conner's body was recovered with a thin circle of plastic tape wrapped 1 1/2 times around his neck, extending in another loop that resembles a bow knot.

A theory benefiting Scott Peterson's defense considers that as evidence of someone else's involvement, while others have speculated that the body became entangled in ocean debris.

Walkers found Laci Peterson's badly decomposed torso and lower body April 14 among the rocks at Point Isabel Regional Shoreline south of Richmond. The body was missing its head, feet and hands. The baby's relatively well-preserved body had been found the day before just more than a mile north in marshy grassland, about 15 feet inland from the shoreline, officials said.

A body in plastic would be expected to decompose slower than one exposed to the elements, said Harry J. Bonnell, a San Diego forensic pathologist.

State of body prompts theories

But there are several other reasons that the body of a woman would deteriorate faster if neither was wrapped in plastic, Bonnell said. They include:

Adult stomachs contain bacteria, "a large element in decomposition," Bonnell said, while the stomachs of fetuses do not.

Cold water preserves small bodies better. Adults have more fat, which keeps bodies warmer, allowing bacteria to break down tissues.

Predators like crabs and fish would be expected to seek large food sources first.

The plastic sheeting and plastic material around Conner's neck "may be just normal garbage in the bay," Bonnell said.

Other experts have speculated that the boy was expelled from the womb when the mother's body sufficiently decomposed. He would have been partially protected from predators while in her body.

The wad of clear plastic found near Laci Peterson's remains sports a logo for Target Products Ltd., a Canada-based company that manufactures items such as concrete, grout and stucco for use in building, mining and golf industries.

The polyethylene sheeting appears consistent with plastic commonly used to cover items on pallets.

Target has retail outlets in Sacramento, San Diego and Long Beach, according to the company's Web site.

The owner of Spec-West Inc. in Sacramento, Bob Sanford, said Matt Dalton, an attorney with Scott Peterson's defense team, contacted the company in June to obtain a sample of the clear plastic covering with the Target logo.

The wrap protects products shipped from Canada and is a heavier gauge than typical pallet wrap, said Spec-West sales director Bill Shorey.

Spec-West, a small company, typically sells pallets to building contractors. Target products account for less than 5 percent of the company's business, Sanford said. He didn't know if records would show a sale to Scott Peterson.

Sanford said no one from the prosecution has contacted his company. "Why wouldn't police want something like this?" he said.

"Maybe they know something we don't know," speculated Stephen Lubet of the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago.

Prosecutors may have determined the plastic is not related to the case, said Ruth Jones, a criminal law professor at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento and a former prosecutor.

Roger C. Park, an evidence specialist at the University of California's Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, said: "Maybe (police) already found something in (Scott Peterson's) warehouse and they don't need to show where he bought (the plastic). If they found something with the same company logo and they tested it, they may not decide to go any further."

A killer's mistakes can be traced

Peterson rented a Modesto warehouse for use in his business as a fertilizer salesman. Police searched the warehouse Dec. 27 and his separate storage unit in February.

A novice killer, Jones said, may use materials that could be traced back to him or her.

"One of the things that happens when you have crimes of passion or crimes where the person is inexperienced is people make mistakes," Jones said. "That's how we catch them."

The defense may have taken a sample in an attempt to undercut any potential link between the material found near Laci Peterson's remains and any similar plastic that could be tied to Scott Peterson, Park said.

If prosecutors contend they have a match, the defense could want to show it was a "coincidental match" -- that all similar plastic from that distributor has the same microscopic characteristics, Park said.

If the sample obtained by the defense has the same characteristics as the plastic found near the body in April, the defense could argue somebody else may just as easily have been responsible for the plastic appearing near the body, Park said.

Some experts emphasized that their comments are closer to guesswork than opinions, because few details are available in the closely guarded case.

"Any speculation would probably be foolhardy," said Jeanette Sereno, an attorney and criminal justice professor at California State University, Stanislaus. "You've got open skies there."

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

Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or jcote@modbee.com.

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