Peterson trial turns to cause of death


Last Updated: September 18, 2004, 05:09:50 AM PDT

REDWOOD CITY — Amid grisly autopsy photos that choked up Scott Peterson, prosecutors suggested Thursday that he smothered or strangled his pregnant wife, the first indication of how they think he murdered her.
That could account for what the defense has said was a lack of Laci Peterson’s blood or other bodily fluids in the couple’s Modesto home, her husband’s pickup or the boat prosecutors contend he used to dump her body in San Francisco Bay.

Prosecutors, their case winding down after 16 weeks of testimony, have presented no evidence that police found bodily fluids.

“Certainly smothering is one of the ways not to produce blood or fluid outside the body,” testified Dr. Brian Peterson, the medical examiner who performed autopsies on Laci Peterson and the baby the couple planned to name Conner.

Dr. Peterson, who is not related to the defendant, also testified that he was unable to determine the cause or time of death for Laci Peterson because her remains were severely degraded by tidal action, decomposition and animal feeding after what appeared to be months of submersion.

But he said he believed Laci Peterson’s unborn son died because she had been killed.

“Truly, I believe that for whatever reason Laci met her demise, it was her death that caused Conner’s death, that he was still in her uterus,” Dr. Peterson testified.

That testimony undercut the defense theory that Conner Peterson was born alive days or weeks after Scott Peterson came under police surveillance. But the doctor acknowledged that he could not rule out a birth.

Peterson’s attorneys maintain that Laci Peterson was abducted while walking the dog, held until her child was full-term and that then the baby was cut from her womb.

Photos seem to affect Peterson

Testimony about the bodies came as the jury for a second straight day viewed autopsy photos, this time of Conner Peterson.

Scott Peterson dabbed his eyes, nose and mouth with a tissue or handkerchief at least four times during the lengthy presentation. He hunched forward, his head close to the table in front of him, and appeared to gulp repeatedly for more than an hour.

His family members, seated behind him, largely averted their gazes as the images were projected on a screen.

His father, Lee Peterson, momentarily looked at the screen when defense attorney Mark Geragos displayed close-up pictures of the baby’s abdomen.

Scott Peterson’s mother, Jackie, quickly glanced at another photo of what would have been her grandson, but otherwise averted her eyes, sometimes shielding them with a notepad. She also put a tissue to her face.

Laci Peterson’s family was not in court.

An alternate juror and mother of four boys quietly cried for the better part of an hour, repeatedly wiping her tears with tissues. She remained red-eyed outside the courthouse during a recess.

Juror 11, a female accountant who said during jury selection that someone close to her had lost a child, averted her eyes for most of the presentation and swayed uncomfortably in her seat.

The photos clearly seemed to disturb the jury, trial observer and former San Mateo County prosecutor Dean Johnson said outside the courthouse.

“They don’t like Scott Peterson,” Johnson said. “They also really, really don’t like whoever is responsible for Laci Peterson’s death. The big question is, are they going to connect the two?”

Time in water undetermined

Thursday’s testimony by Dr. Peterson and Alison Galloway, a forensic anthropologist who tried to determine Conner’s gestational age and how long the bodies had been in the water, left room for interpretation.

Toxicology results from Laci Peterson were “not productive,” Dr. Peterson testified. They indicated only decomposition chemicals and caffeine.

Dr. Peterson said there were a host of possibilities for Laci Peterson’s cause of death, including strangulation or an “in-and-out” gunshot to the chest that didn’t strike bone.

“Could there have been damage to her neck? Sure,” he said. “But the problem was her neck and her face were missing.”

The body, found along the bay’s eastern shore about four months after she was reported missing Christmas Eve 2002, also lacked forearms, feet, part of the left leg and all internal organs except the uterus.

Geragos said the fact that the organs, skin and tissue were gone from the bellybutton to the breast area suggested an incision had been made and the baby removed, allowing that area to degrade faster.

He also pointed to the frayed end of a bottom rib as an indication there had been a crude Caesarean section.

Prosecutor Dave Harris countered, asking Dr. Peterson whether Laci Peterson’s bra and the remnants of her pants could have accounted for the difference in degradation. He said it was possible.

Harris also pointed to the condition of the uterus, which Dr. Peterson said bore no signs of an incision but was torn and frayed, indicating decomposition.

Condition of bodies contested

Under questioning by Geragos, the doctor acknowledged that when a person is killed, even by suffocation, the body can expel various fluids. But there is no reliable timetable for such actions, if they happen at all, he said.

Dr. Peterson said Conner was less decomposed because he was protected in his mother’s womb until expelled by decomposition and tidal action.

“If he would have spent substantial unprotected time in the water as Laci did, he simply would’ve been eaten,” Peterson said.

Weights linked to missing limbs

Galloway, the forensic anthropologist, testified that Laci Peterson’s remains appear to have been underwater for three months to six months.

She estimated Conner’s gestational age — the time from the end of the mother’s last menstrual cycle — at 33 weeks to 38 weeks when he died.

The day before Laci Peterson was reported missing, the baby’s gestational age was calculated at 32 weeks and six days, Dr. Tina Edraki testified.

Dr. Peterson testified that the absence of Laci Peterson’s limbs was consistent with weights being used to hold the body underwater, while Galloway said the they were consistent with tidal action on the bay floor.

Bee staff writer John Coté can be reached at 578-2394 or Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or