Coroner Finds Plastic 'Noose' Around Peterson Baby's Neck
Report Could Boost Defense Claims
NBC 6 News Team
POSTED: 1:00 pm EDT May 29, 2003
UPDATED: 5:54 am EDT May 30, 2003
MODESTO, Calif. -- A California district attorney now says the office will withdraw it's objections to unsealing the complete autopsy reports in the Laci Peterson case.
Possible Noose On Laci's Baby
The reversal comes after NBC News exclusively obtained a portion of a coroner's report on Connor Peterson, the unborn son of Laci and Scott Peterson. Scott Peterson is accused of killing his wife, Laci, and their unborn son after Laci was reported missing from her Modesto home on Christmas Eve.
Stanislas County prosecutors apparently were angered that portions of an autopsy report that could be helpful to Scott Peterson's defense was "selectively leaked" to the news media.
NBC News' chief legal correspondent Dan Abrams broke the story on Thursday, reading portions of the report on MSNBC.
The coroner's report indicates that 1 ½ loops of plastic tape were found around Connor Peterson's neck. In addition, the report also said a "significant cut" was found on the baby's body, which the report said was made after he died. In addition, a half-centimeter of umbilical cord was found protruding from the body. The findings appear to indicate that Connor Peterson may have been born, rather than expelled from Laci Peterson's body after it was dumped in the water near Richmond, Calif., as the prosecution is expected to claim.
The report indicates that not only was the baby born, but that someone had contact with it to loop the tape around its neck and place the large cut or tear extending from the fetus' right shoulder to its abdomen, which exposed internal organs. The report did not indicate that any of the baby's organs had been removed.
Abrams conducted an interview by telephone with forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz, a forensic expert not involved in the case, who called the findings "very significant." Spitz said that the coroner's report indicated that the unbilical cord was likely cut, because it would have been very difficult to tear, although Spitz said it could also have been "bitten."
Abrams emphasized that it is still possible that the tape around the baby's neck could have gotten there accidentally, after the baby was expelled from his mother, but Spitz called that premise unlikely.
"Of all the places to have the tape around the neck ... not the arm, not the leg, but the neck, with the skin tight around it, and the whole circumstance of this ... to consider that as a coincidence would be inaccurate to start off reasoning on that premise," Spitz said.
Abrams also interviewed well-known forensic pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, who said the cuts found on the baby's body were consistent with the child having been removed from the mother's womb via an incision, rather than expelled from the body due to decomposition of the uterus, although Wecht said that he could not come to a definitive conclusion without seeing the report himself. Wecht also said the report's findings were extremely significant.
Scott Peterson's defense team has claimed that Laci may have been the victim of a Satanic cult, which cut the baby out of her body and performed some sort of ritual on it. The defense claims were made before the coroner's report -- the second to be released in the case -- was released.
The defense has had the report for approximately a week, but it was unclear why the information on the baby was only released Thursday. NBC News sources indicated it was leaked to the media by the defense team.
There have been two sets of coroner's reports released. First, a 25-page report was released that found the cause of Laci Peterson's death to be inconclusive. The defense complained that it never received the entire first report, which was sealed this month. Thursday's report is a follow-up, focusing on Connor Peterson.
The Satanic cult theory was widely dismissed, but this new evidence could boost the defense claim. Criminal defense attorney Brian Wice said that while the defense is not required to prove its theory in the case, the report could help attorney Mark Geragos and his team create reasonable doubt with the jury.
Scott Peterson, 30, has pleaded not guilty to murdering his wife and unborn son. The remains of the 27-year-old pregnant substitute teacher and the infant were found on the shore of San Francisco Bay last month.
Wecht, whose name became familiar to Americans during the O.J. Simpson murder trial, in which he testified as a defense expert, told Abrams that the fact that searchers who found the body were able to identify it as a male is also extremely significant.
"The smaller the body mass, the faster the process of decomposition will be," said Wecht, pointing out that the baby was spotted near San Francisco Bay a day before Laci Peterson's body was found, and that "non-medical personnel" immediately identified it as male. The coroner's report also indicated that the baby was clearly male, and that the genitals and anus were intact.
"When the baby was found, they immediately identified the sex -- they said it was a male baby," said Wecht. "If that is true, I find it extremely hard to believe the baby was floating around the bay for three months. The anus and external genetalia would not have remained in tact for three months."
The prosecution contends that Scott Peterson dumped the bodies in the bay shortly after Christmas Eve. The bodies were found in April.
Wecht said he found it "absolutely amazing" that the baby could have been floating in the bay for three months with the anus and external genitals remaining intact. "I find that hard to square," he said.
The coroner's report indicates that the baby's internal organs were "markedly decomposed," but that external organs and the anus were identifiable.
Detectives have indicated that it is possible the bodies of Connor and Laci were wrapped in some sort of plastic sheeting prior to being deposited in the bay.
Still, Wecht said the new information "could be an incredibly fortuitous post mortem artifact. If it turns out to be true, I think this is dynamite evidence for Scott Peterson.