Testimony is graphic at hearing

11/18/2003 9:00 AM

11/19/2007 2:21 PM

Police investigators found evidence suggesting someone made several cement anchors in Scott Peterson's warehouse, a detective testified Monday, while a pathologist said it was possible but not likely that Peterson's son was born alive.

Missing anchors could be damning evidence against Peterson, while the possibility that his son was delivered by Caesarian section could undermine a prosecution argument that he murdered his wife when she was nearly eight months pregnant with their first child.

The developments in Stanislaus County Superior Court punctuated a day dominated by often graphic testimony from the forensic pathologist who performed autopsies on Peterson's wife and son.

The 31-year-old defendant asked to leave the courtroom before the doctor took the stand. Defense attorney Mark Geragos said he encouraged his client to waive his right to hear that particular testimony in his preliminary hearing on double-murder charges.

"I do not wish to be present during this witness," Peterson said in measured tones when Judge Al Girolami asked him if it was his choice to leave the courtroom.

Laci Peterson's family members, who have been in the front row for nearly every court session, did not appear until after that testimony was over.

Peterson's parents, Lee and Jackie Peterson, remained in the courtroom. During a particularly gruesome patch of testimony, Jackie Peterson dabbed her eyes with a tissue. The Petersons cringed as the medical examiner inadvertently showed the audience portions of large color autopsy photos.

Also Monday, a police computer investigator said Scott Peterson used his home computer in early December to research San Francisco Bay and Central Valley lakes and reservoirs. The expert acknowledged that Peterson visited a sport fishing Web site as well.

Prosecutors said they intend to finish presenting evidence and witnesses today. Defense attorneys said they may call no witnesses.

But that could change, Geragos said, after he hears what today's witnesses have to say. Scheduled are Modesto police Detective Jon Buehler and county district attorney investigator Steve Jacobson.

Buehler was law enforcement's chief contact with Amber Frey, Scott Peterson's girlfriend when his wife disappeared. Jacobson was in charge of wiretaps on Peterson's phones.

Judge rules on DNA tests

Girolami started Day 11 of the hearing by ruling he would allow results from a disputed DNA test into court if the case proceeds to trial.

The move was a blow to the defense, which maintains that police wrongly honed in on Scott Peterson after his pregnant wife was reported missing Christmas Eve.

Prosecutors contend Peterson murdered his wife and unborn son late Dec. 23 or early Dec. 24. They are seeking the death penalty.

Peterson told police he left his wife at about 9:30 a.m. on Dec. 24 to fish alone in San Francisco Bay. She was gone when he returned that afternoon, he said.

A Dec. 27 search of the Modesto warehouse that Peterson used in his work as a fertilizer salesman and where he stored his fishing boat turned up evidence suggesting the making of cement anchors, Detective Dodge Hendee testified Monday.

Police found what appeared to be cement powder along the edge of a flatbed trailer in the warehouse, Hendee said.

There were five patches "where there was a little less powder, a voided area, if you will, something had probably or most likely, in my opinion, been there," he said.

Investigators found a 1-gallon plastic pitcher nearby, Hendee said.

A cement anchor with a rebar loop at one end found in Peterson's 14-foot aluminum boat "fit perfectly" into the pitcher, the detective testified.

"The weight apparently came from that pitcher," Hendee said before Geragos objected. Girolami ordered Hendee's opinion stricken from the record.

When Peterson bought his boat Dec. 9 it had no anchor, Detective Al Brocchini testified earlier. But the prospect of additional unaccounted-for anchors could provide prosecutors with physical evidence against Peterson -- something the court has seen little of so far in the preliminary hearing.

Remains severely decomposed

Laci and Conner Peterson's remains were found in April less than a mile apart along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay. Both spots are less than two miles from where Peterson said he fished the day his wife was reported missing, Hendee said.

Laci Peterson's body was missing the head, neck, forearms, hands, feet and part of the lower left leg, testified Brian Peterson, a forensic pathologist on contract with Contra Costa County. He is not related to the defendant or victims.

There was no indication of bullet, saw or chew marks on Laci Peterson's remains, Brian Peterson said. He could not determine the cause of death.

Laci Peterson's remains were severely decomposed. Almost all major internal organs were gone, leaving the torso skeletal, Brian Peterson said. The only internal organ that remained was the uterus, he said, adding that there were no indications it had been cut.

"My belief is that the uterus was intact at the time this body was deposited in the water," he said. "I believe Conner was in that uterus."

There was no sign of a vaginal birth, Brian Peterson said.

But under cross examination by Geragos, Brian Peterson said he could not rule out that Conner Peterson had been born alive.

There was a quarter-inch umbilical cord attached to the fetus -- roughly the same amount as a belly button, Brian Peterson acknowledged. The end was "ragged," which is not consistent with cutting, he said.

"It just fell apart or pulled apart," he said. "It was not cut."

Decomposition and tidal action likely released Conner Peterson's body from his mother's womb after she was submerged in the bay, the doctor said.

But he and a forensic anthropologist who examined Conner's remains both estimated the fetus was more than 32 weeks old when it was killed -- older than when his mother disappeared.

In his report, Brian Peterson indicated that Conner's gestational age appeared to be 9 months.

Forensic anthropologist Allison Galloway measured bones and estimated Conner's age at between 34 to 40 weeks, with most bones estimated at 35 weeks or older, Brian Peterson said.

A doctor who examined Laci Peterson Dec. 23, the day before she was reported missing, estimated she was 32 weeks pregnant.

Scott Peterson came under intense police scrutiny almost immediately after his pregnant wife was reported missing Christmas Eve, making it more difficult to argue he could have acted sometime after that date.

Defense focuses on duct tape

Conner's remains also showed considerably less decomposition than his mother's, a phenomenon Brian Peterson said could be attributed to the baby's body remaining protected inside the womb until a few days before it was found.

Geragos pointed to a bag found with duct tape attached to it in "the vicinity" of the bodies and to 1 1/2 loops of plastic tape around Conner's neck that was knotted and ran along his chest and under his arm.

Geragos suggested the variance in decomposition between the bodies could be attributed to the bag being placed on the baby and secured with the plastic tape.

"I think that's possible. I certainly don't think it's likely," Brian Peterson said. "It's not my top choice."

Brian Peterson said the tape likely was ocean debris, prompting Geragos to express disbelief.

"The baby had to be swimming like this," Geragos said, arms stroking the air as he stood next to the witness stand. "Wouldn't you agree that is extremely unlikely?"

"I agree that it is unlikely that baby would swim," Brian Peterson said.

Also, there was no evidence of injury to the boy's skin under the tape. A 2-centimeter gap appeared between the neck and tape when pulled taut on one side, the medical examiner testified.

The defense suggested that it would be unlikely the tape would get around the baby's neck on its own.

Brian Peterson acknowledged that a small rectangular length of unknown substance showed in a photo taken when Conner's body was found, but had been removed when another photo was taken in an examination room.

Geragos suggested that it was electrical tape, which could be used to support the theory the baby was born, then wrapped in something before his body was dumped.

But the medical examiner said he thought it might have been kelp. He didn't remove it and didn't know what became of it, he said, adding that that would be up to a police criminalist from Richmond.

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

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

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