Prosecutors to use DNA against Peterson in delayed preliminary hearing

By Harriet Ryan, Court TV

MODESTO, Calif. (Court TV) Prosecutors plan to use DNA to link Scott Peterson to the murder of his wife and unborn son, but they will have to wait seven more weeks to do so.

A judge Tuesday postponed Peterson's scheduled Sept. 9 preliminary hearing a "mini-trial" in which prosecutors lay out a bare bones case until Oct. 20 to allow high-profile defense lawyer Mark Geragos to try two other cases in Los Angeles.

During the 20-minute hearing in Stanislaus County Superior Court, prosecutors, who have been tight-lipped about their case, referred to "mitochondrial DNA" they plan to introduce at the hearing. They did not specify what the genetic material was, but mitochondrial testing, a less exact method than traditional nuclear DNA testing, is often used on old, degraded or extremely small samples of hair, fingernails or bone. It is rarely used for blood evidence.

Laci Peterson disappeared last December about a month and a half before she was to give birth to the couple's first child. Her badly decomposed remains, along with those of the son she planned to name Conner, washed up on the eastern shore of the San Francisco Bay in April. Her 30-year-old husband, who told police he was fishing in the bay when she went missing, was charged with two counts of murder and now faces the death penalty. He denies any involvement, and his defense has suggested a satanic cult may be to blame.

In addition to the DNA, prosecutors Rick Distaso and Dave Harris alluded Tuesday to several other pieces of evidence they plan to introduce at the preliminary hearing. They listed the results of a satellite tracking device as well as testimony from dog handlers who searched for Laci Peterson and a pregnant woman who was hypnotized as part of the investigation.

Lawyers for Peterson said they will challenge the admissibility of much of the evidence disclosed by prosecutors. Without giving reasons, Mark Geragos said he plans to file paperwork asking the judge to throw out results from the dog searches and from a GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking device used during the investigation. It was unclear what was tracked.

Peterson's defense also plans to challenge the testimony of Kristen Dempewolf, a neighbor of Peterson who was also pregnant in December. Detectives apparently believed neighbors who say they saw Laci Peterson walking her dog after the time Scott Peterson is alleged to have killed his wife actually saw Dempewolf. Court papers refer to a hypnosis technique used during interviews with Dempewolf.

Geragos did not say on what grounds he would oppose her testimony, but he did say that at least one detective in the case did not realize she was hypnotized until recently. A spokesman for the district attorney's office referred to Dempewolf as a "supposedly hypnotized" witness, but declined to comment further citing a gag order in the case.

The defense also may attack the DNA results. Mitochondrial DNA testing is routinely used in court cases and was used to identify the remains of Sept. 11 victims. According to San Diego prosecutor Woody Clark, who specializes in DNA evidence and worked on the prosecutions of O.J. Simpson and David Westerfield, nuclear testing reveals genetic profiles that occur only one in a "quadrillion" people while mitochondrial results are often described to juries as occurring once or perhaps twice in a scientific data bank of 5,000 people.

Geragos also said Tuesday that the defense only recently learned about 31 pieces of potential evidence recovered near the remains of Laci and Conner Peterson. Geragos did not specify the materials, but said the defense is eager for them to be tested.

Although reports swirled in Modesto during the long holiday weekend that Peterson was enraged by his attorney's desire to delay the hearing and jail officials fielded dozens of calls trying to confirm a rumor that Peterson killed himself, the former fertilizer salesman appeared in court Tuesday morning looking upbeat and confident in a navy suit and tie.

He mouthed, "Hi Mom," to his mother, Jackie, in the front row as he entered court and chatted amiably with Geragos during the hearing. When Stanislaus County Superior Court Judge Al Girolami asked him if he agreed to the postponement, he replied, "I do, your honor."

"He's okay with it," said Peterson's father, Lee, as he left the courthouse. He added that Peterson was "still grieving the loss of his wife, his baby and his freedom."

"What more could a man lose?" asked Lee Peterson.

Laci Peterson's mother, Sharon Rocha, sat across the aisle from the Petersons during the hearing with eight supporters and slipped from the courthouse without speaking.