Doctor May Have Hurt Peterson Defense


Posted: October 21, 2004 at 4:20 p.m.
Updated: October 21, 2004 at 4:42 p.m.

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (AP) -- Prosecutors delivered a critical blow to Scott Peterson's defense Thursday, attacking the findings of an expert who testified Laci Peterson's fetus likely died on Dec. 29, 2002 at the earliest, five days after the pregnant schoolteacher vanished.

The age of the fetus is crucial because prosecutors claim it was expelled dead from Laci's decaying corpse. Defense lawyers maintain it was born alive, proving Scott Peterson couldn't be the killer given its due date of Feb. 10, nearly seven weeks after Laci vanished. Experts agree proving this fact was crucial to the defense case.

The coroner who performed the autopsy on the fetus estimated its age at death to be about nine months, or full term. A forensic anthropologist testified she calculated the fetus' age at between 33 weeks and 38 weeks at death.

Another prosecution witness said the fetus probably died between Dec. 21 and Dec. 24.

On Thursday, Dr. Charles March, a gynecologist asked by the defense to examine the prosecution witnesses' findings and Laci's medical records, testified that based on bone measurements of the dead fetus and reviewing ultrasounds taken of Laci, the fetus probably died on Dec. 29 or as late as mid-January.

However, March later added that he based his findings, in part, on anecdotal evidence of when Laci may have discovered she was pregnant.

According to previous testimony, Laci Peterson told one of her friends on June 9, 2002, that she was pregnant.

Under cross-examination, March acknowledged he inferred from that that Laci had just found out she was pregnant based on a home test June 9 because, he said, Laci would likely have told her friend about it immediately.

"Where in the medical records does it talk about Laci Peterson using a pregnancy test on June 9?" Harris asked.

"Nowhere," March replied, becoming obviously flustered, shifting nervously in his seat and biting his lower lip.

"So you're making an assumption to form a medical opinion, isn't that correct?" Harris prodded.

"Based on 30 years of being a doctor ... that's a pretty good assumption," March said.

Defense lawyer Mark Geragos promised jurors during his opening statement that he would prove the fetus died after Laci vanished. Legal experts agreed March's testimony fell tremendously short of delivering on that promise.

"This was meant to be one of the highpoints of the defense and it just sunk," said James Hammer, a former prosecutor and trial observer.

Robert Talbot, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, called it "devastating."

"How can you base a scientific medical opinion on something that came up in conversation without anything to back it up? You can't come into a court of law and base a key fact on that and expect to have credibility," Talbot said.

Former prosecutor and trial watcher Chuck Smith agreed.

"This witness was pummeled, like a fighter on the ropes," Smith said. "It was that stunning."

Harris later noted how March had typographical errors in his report, stating several times that Laci had informed her friend of her pregnancy on June 11.

"I'm sorry. It was an error. I made a mistake," March said.

On redirect, Geragos noted that Laci had told several friends of her pregnancy on that June day, and asked March if his findings would have been different without that information.

"Not really," March said. "I think it's nice to have that information because it reinforces."

Prosecutors allege Peterson killed his wife on or around Dec. 24, 2002, then dumped her body into San Francisco Bay. The remains of Laci Peterson and the fetus she carried washed up about four months later, a few miles from where Peterson claims to have been fishing alone the day his wife vanished.

Defense lawyers claim someone else abducted and killed Laci while she walked the couple's dog.

Previously, Kevin Bertalotto, an investigator with the Stanislaus County District Attorney's Office, testified about a tip he received in April 2003 from a man who claimed to have seen Laci walking the dog around the neighborhood "approximately two weeks before she went missing."

Prosecutors claim she had stopped walking the dog at her doctor's request.

On cross-examination, prosecutor Rick Distaso attacked the alleged sighting by trying to undermine the credibility of the witness.

"He said he had a substance abuse problem and that he had just been arrested for his third drunk driving?" Distaso asked Bertalotto.

"That's what he told me," Bertalotto replied.

Defense attorneys then turned to familiar territory with attempts to offer other theories of the crime, implying that someone else could have been responsible for Laci's demise.

Ricardo Cordova, a Stanislaus County Superior Court judge who lived in the Petersons' neighborhood, testified about an incident the day before Laci vanished when a stranger knocked on his door.

"He was asking for money ... I think he said his girlfriend had been stranded in the foothills ... and her car had broken down," Cordova said.

"The person mentioned that he had gone to other houses in the neighborhood and the people hadn't been home ... That sounded unusual to me," he added. "I believed he was probably casing the neighborhood to see if anyone was home."

Defense attorneys have previously suggested that Laci may have interrupted a burglary in the neighborhood when she was abducted and later killed.