Karen Servas: The Faulty Timeline
In the hearing on the 995 motion on January 14, 2004, ADA Distaso focused specifically on the 10-minute window from 10:08 a.m. to 10:18 a.m.:
Karen [Servas] finds the dog at 10:18. So we're talking about, if he left at 10:08, as his cell phone records show, not as he told us, we're talking a 10-minute time window when Laci Peterson must have finished mopping the floor, changed her clothes, gotten -- gotten the dog together, gone on a walk, gotten far enough away where then she got abducted and had time for the dog to come back. All of these things were impossible. If those things are impossible, then this man murdered Laci Peterson.
Judge Delucchi certainly bought the 10:08-10:18 timeline because he rejected out of hand the new evidence implicating the burglar Todd in an encounter with Laci because it claimed Laci was alive after 10:18.
Placing so much emphasis on this 10:08-10:18 timeline is foolish for three very good reasons.
First, it denies the reality that life is unpredictable
Life is not regulated by a Franklin planner. Plans change. Things go wrong. The phone rings. Women in the 3rd trimester have to go to the bathroom frequently. Dogs get out, even with their leashes on. Dogs get away while on walks with their owners, and pregnant women in their third trimester aren't exactly able to run after them.
In other words, Servas finding McKenzie in the middle of the street is not conclusive evidence that Laci is already dead or already abducted.
Second, it places an inordinate faith in electronics
The front end of the timeline is determined by cell phone records, and specifically the time Scott placed a call to check his voice mail. Yet the Jury was provided testimony from the State's own expert witness that the cell phone records used to pinpoint Scott's location at the time he checked his voice mail were never intended to be used for that purpose. Cell phone tracking was devised solely for the purpose of detecting fraud, not identifying the caller's location.
In addition, the Defense offered evidence to the Jury that on the night of December 24 Scott made three calls while standing in his front yard that were handled by three different cell tower locations, including the tower that normally handles the cell phone activity for the warehouse area of Modesto. This instance is corroborated by multiple witnesses who personally saw Scott standing in his front yard at the time of those three calls, including police officers.
So, we have evidence that the cell tower location is being incorrectly used by the Prosecution to pinpoint Scott's location and a specific instance when the tower location is incorrect 2 out of 3 times in determining Scott's location.
Therefore, claiming that 10:08 is the precise time Scott left home is unreasonable and unproven.
Now, we look at the electronics relied on to establish the back-end of the timeline -- the 10:18 time for Servas finding McKenzie in the street. Servas relied on the receipt she received from Austin's Christmas store to backtrack her steps and determine the latest time for finding McKenzie.
Scott's defense team offered evidence to the Jury that the register at Austin's did not record time correctly. Unfortunately, Scott did not know he would need such evidence during the 2002 Christmas season, as the Christmas store was already closed when it became obvious to him that he was the target of the investigation.
However, the next Christmas season, Mark Geragos sent a private investigator to Austin's Christmas store to test the accuracy of the cash register. In front of Bill Austin, the owner, Jensen had two no-sales receipts rung up ten minutes apart. The receipts, however, showed a discrepancy of 49 minutes and recorded two different dates. The two no-sales receipts are Defense H. In his testimony, Austin said he could not remember the details of when the two receipts were made.
We do not have to rely on the integrity of the Defense Private Investigator, or on the memory of Bill Austin, because the State of California provided corroborating evidence that cash registers cannot be depended on to accurately record the time of transactions.
I refer to the two receipts Scott received from Mail Boxes Etc. when he rented the mailbox on December 23, 2002. Two receipts were involved in that transaction, one from the cash register and one from the credit card machine. The cash register receipt gives a time of 9:26 a.m. and the credit card machine a time of 9:20 a.m. If we are to assume that all registers accurately record the time, then we have to assume that Mail Boxes Etc. charged Scott's credit card six minutes before he made his purchase. Click on the receipts to enlarge for better viewing.
Third, it relies exclusively on a single, unreliable eye-witness
And that brings us to the final point in the argument against accepting 10:18 as the back-end of the timeline -- the credibility of Karen Servas. Is she a witness that should be relied on to determine such a critical element in the case against Scott Peterson?
Let's look at her track record. As admitted in both her Preliminary hearing testimony and her trial testimony, she initially said she left her house the morning of the 24th to do errands "at almost exactly 10:30". Kirk McAllister, conducting the cross examination at the Preliminary Hearing, suggested the police report said she knew the time because she looked at her watch. Servas denied that was the case, and said she just thought generally that was the time she left.
When she testified at the Preliminary hearing, she gave an exact time for leaving later that evening for an engagement. She said she knew it was 5:05 because she looked at the clock in her car. She said she was supposed to be at her engagement at 5:00.
Even though Servas was positive about the times for both -- the 10:30 and the 5:05 -- she had to recant on both. She recanted on the 10:30 time within a few days of giving that information to the police. But the reason she did so in itself discredits her testimony.
She used the 10:34 time of the Austin receipt to backtrack her steps and arrive at the corrected 10:18 time for finding McKenzie. However, she was so frazzled a witness that she did not even remember, on the night of the 24th, putting that Austin receipt into the pocket of her jeans. And when she gave her statement to Detective Buehler on the 25th, she did not even think to look in her jean pocket for the receipt. She only accidentally found the receipt a few days later when she was emptying the pocket in preparation for doing the laundry -- and although not yet washed, the receipt was already very faded.
She did not recant the 5:05 time until after her testimony at the Preliminary hearing, which occurred on November 13, 2003. So, for nearly an entire year, she labored under the belief that she left her home at 5:05 p.m. on the 24th and that she was scheduled to be at her engagement at 5:00 p.m.
She told Detective Bertalotto that she realized she was mistaken about the 5:05 time period because she saw how dark it was getting in mid-November 2003 and realized that it would have been too dark at 5:05 p.m. for her to see the package protruding from the Peterson mailbox and checked her emails and her calendar. She learned that her engagement was at 4:00 and so it must have been 4:05 when she looked at the clock in her car.
She was mistaken by exactly one hour -- 5:05 was actually 4:05. What condition can explain that? What phenomena that we go through every Fall can explain why she looked at her car clock and saw 5:05 instead of 4:05?
The change from Daylight Savings time to Standard time quite easily explains the mistake of exactly one hour. Combine a car clock that is still set to Daylight Savings Time with a frazzled witness, and you have a serious problem with her whole time frame.
What if the reason Servas was initially so sure about the 10:30 time is because she looked at that same car clock and saw 10:30. What does that do to the credibility of her timeline?
It wholly destroys it. Instead of leaving at 10:30, as she originally thought, she left at 9:30. That means she could not have found McKenzie on her way to run her errands, but instead found him on her return.
Is Karen Servas that frazzled a witness to have made such a serious mistake? Well, anyone that labors for an entire year believing she was supposed to be somewhere at 5:00 and left at 5:05 when the correct times were 4:00 and 4:05; and anyone that cannot remember putting a receipt into a jean pocket or even think to look for the receipt in the jean pocket -- yes, she could be that frazzled a witness.
Let's look at another of her statements to see just how frazzled a witness she is. During her trial testimony, she said
I called Detective Bertalotto two days after I testified at the preliminary hearing. And I said, I think I've got a problem. And he said what. And I said I reflected on my testimony at the prelim and I realized that there is no way that I could have seen the package at 5:05 because it would have been dark, so I went back to my Daytimer, looked to see when I was supposed to be at my friend's house, and I was supposed to be there at 4:00. I knew I was going to be five minutes late . . .
She's supposed to be somewhere at 4:00, it's 4:05 and she's just leaving the house, and she's only going to be 5 minutes late? Clearly this is a woman who has no time perception or awareness of how long it takes to get somewhere. Her engagement was in Ripon, a small town 10-15 miles north of Modesto.
Other things suggest Servas was a very frazzled witness on the 24th, well before she even knew Laci had disappeared. Just a few days before, Laci had told her that she almost fell into the pool when she had a dizzy spell. Yet, Servas was seemingly unconcerned to find McKenzie out with his leash on. Scott's vehicle was gone, Laci's vehicle was home. Why didn't Servas become concerned that Laci had taken McKenzie for a walk, had a dizzy spell, and was in need of help? That doesn't seem to even have occurred to Servas. That wouldn't be strange except we know that Laci had already told her about a potentially life-threatening dizzy spell. Yet Servas didn't knock on the door, didn't check during the day, didn't even make a phone call.
And there is the matter of the package protruding from the Peterson's mailbox. Servas said at the Preliminary hearing that she observed the package protruding from the mailbox when she drove past the Peterson home on her way to her <5:00> engagement. She said in her trial testimony that she also observed the package when she returned from her morning errands, about 11:45 or 12:00 Noon. Specifically, she said she noticed it as she was pulling into her driveway.
Here is a picture that the Prosecution offered as People's 32, showing Servas and Peterson homes. I have altered the picture to show the location of Servas's car in her driveway and the Peterson mailbox. Click the picture to enlarge it.
Servas wants us to believe that a person who believes it is 5:05 instead of 4:05, and who believes she is supposed to be somewhere at 5:00 when the engagement is actually 4:00 p.m., is observant enough to notice a box the size of a book protruding from this mailbox as she is pulling into her driveway.
I suggest that Karen Servas saw the package protruding from the Peterson mailbox when she walked McKenzie across the front lawn, having first tried the gate that is right next to the mailbox and, finding it locked, then crossed over the yard to the other gate.
That would have been after the mail was delivered, not before. That would make the time she found McKenzie to be upon her return from her errands, not as she was going on them.
That would substantially lengthen the back-end of the timeframe from 10:18 to 11:45 or so.
Karen Servas is simply too frazzled a witness, too lacking in accurate time perception, too oblivious to the life-threatening situation represented by McKenzie being loose with his leash on, too unobservant to remember sticking a receipt in a jean pocket or to even consider looking for it there to ever be relied on for establishing an accurate closed-time frame. That the Modesto Police Department didn't realize so, that Mr. Distaso and his associates didn't realize so is disheartening enough. But for a seasoned, veteran Judge like Delucchi to place faith in her testimony is beyond disheartening -- it is outrageous.
Life is not controlled by a Franklin Day Planner--Karen Servas certainly proves that point. Unexpected things happen; unexplainable things happen. Receipts and cell towers cannot be absolutely relied upon to provide accurate times. Certainly Karen Servas cannot be relied upon to provide an accurate time for when she found McKenzie.
The 10:08-10:18 timeframe is more likely to have been a 9:48-11:45 time frame. And certainly within that time frame Laci could finish watching Martha Stewart Live, mop the floor, put on her shoes, and get out the door on her walk with McKenzie. It even allows her time to change her clothes, for whatever reason she needed to or wanted to change them, just as she changed her clothes the day before.