Laci Peterson, the Medina Burglary and Occam's Razor
By Lon Winters
Contributions by Linda Smith and Jane Hamilton
The principle of Occam’s Razor has been explained in various ways but the meaning remains the same – that usually, the simplest explanation is the correct one. Here’s one actual definition:
One should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.
The jury that convicted Scott Peterson of murdering his wife Laci and their son, Conner, simply applied this principle to their interpretation of evidence that was presented to them. Arguments can be made both for and against this statement, but they basically determined that because there was no reasonable alternative explanation of what happened to Laci then the simplest explanation was that Scott was responsible.
Along with the attempt to cast reasonable doubt on the prosecution’s case, Mark Geragos also attempted to provide the jury with an alternate theory. A common criminal defense strategy is known as “SODDI”, or "Some Other Dude Did It.” Mocked by prosecuting attorneys in closing statements and pundits on news shows, this premise merely follows simple, basic logic – that if the defendant is not guilty, then someone else must be. Sometimes it’s just a defense strategy and other times it’s the truth.
The problem is, once a defense attorney begins to allude to some other dude, the jury naturally wants to know who, and when, and why. It doesn’t matter that the burden of proof still technically falls on the people. The burden does shift to some degree when such allusions are put forth.
Mark Geragos’ best effort at tying the disappearance and subsequent murder of Laci Peterson to someone other than Scott focused on the burglary at 516 Covena Ave, the home of Susan and Rudy Medina.
Now, much has been made about the fact that that burglary didn't take place on the 24th, that it must have taken place on the 26th – Geragos, Closing Arguments
And Distaso and team did go to great lengths to get the jury, and
the world, to believe that this burglary did not occur on December
24th. Why was that such an important issue to them? Other than the
timing, there was no other evidence that connected it to Laci.
But that’s just it – the timing. According to Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation for these two events – the burglary and Laci’s disappearance – to have occurred at the same time and place is that they were connected. To offer an explanation that shows the events are unrelated requires two separate and independent sets of circumstances – and introduces elements beyond what is necessary.
This would have presented a problem to the prosecution’s case, therefore it was easier to place the burglary on the 26th – especially when the police investigation itself supported that premise.
If the burglary occurred on the 24th, Occam’s Razor doesn’t prove conclusively that the two events were related. Other evidence can either point to or away from the principle – and in this case the bulk of the evidence confirms the simplest explanation, that there is some connection to the burglary and the disappearance of Laci Peterson. But before we can consider that evidence, we need to show that burglary did take place during the morning of December 24th.
What do we know?
An issue such as this presents us with conflicting reports, information and points of view. The best way to start is to identify the known and accepted facts then proceed from there.
Susan Medina testified that she and her husband pulled out of their driveway at about 10:33 a.m. December 24, 2002 en route to visit family out of town. They returned home at 4:30 p.m. on December 26th and discovered that while they were away, their home had been burglarized. According to this and other information:
1. The burglary occurred sometime between 10:30 a.m. on December 24 and 7:00 a.m. December 26.
2. Diane Jackson witnessed a van and three dark skinned men, not African American, in front of the Medina house on December 24 at 11:40 a.m.
3. Diane Jackson phoned in a tip to the tip line – the tip sheet showed that she reported the above and in addition, “a safe being removed from the house.” The tip was coded a “459” or burglary.
4. Steven Todd confessed to the burglary and a safe was recovered as part of the stolen property.
Did Diane Jackson
actually see the safe on the morning of the 24th?
This is the crucial question. The wording on the tip sheet appears concise, although there may have been a miscommunication. None of the trial testimony regarding the police reports and her statements confirms the tip sheet. In fact, Fladager directly pointed this out to the jury:
Birgit Fladager: All right. Next I'm going to ask you about an interview Mr. Geragos referenced, statements by Diane Jackson. Do you remember that?
Craig Grogan: Yes, ma'am.
Birgit Fladager: And I'm going to refer you to a defense report. Do you have a copy of it? There is not a Bates number on it.
Judge Delucchi: Remind the jury, this is the testimony that was off reports. A little different from the other.
Craig Grogan: All right, I have that report.
Birgit Fladager: The reports, in the course of that interview, is there any indication at all by Miss Jackson that she said she saw a safe?
Craig Grogan: No.
Birgit Fladager: Is there any indication at all in that interview that Ms. Jackson claimed to have witnessed a burglary?
Craig Grogan: No. It indicates that she made observations. And then she heard about the burglary and thought that the two individuals or these other vehicles and the burglary may be related.
Birgit Fladager: Is that because she saw a van?
Craig Grogan: Yes, it appears so.
Birgit Fladager: And that she saw three short, dark-skinned males by the van?
Craig Grogan: Yes.
From this testimony, it appears that Diane Jackson didn’t see a safe only because it wasn’t explicitly mentioned in that report. It’s also obvious that Grogan is paraphrasing and interpreting the report – that Jackson merely saw the individuals and felt they may have been connected to the burglary. But, if that’s what Jackson had actually said in the report, Fladager would have read it verbatim. And there is no clarification or explanation as to what was recorded on the call sheet.
In addition, the transcript refers to it as a defense report – an interview of Diane Jackson by a defense investigator, not by MPD. In this light it’s understandable why the safe wasn’t mentioned. The only official documentation of her seeing the safe was from the tip sheet and first report by Detective Stough. There was no way the defense investigator or anyone outside of MPD to know about that. That information was not revealed until after the arrest and the DA began to provide discovery to the defense.
When Diane Jackson made her report, the resulting actions by the MPD indicated that they believed she had indeed witnessed the burglary. First is the call sheet entry, which is covered during the cross examination of Craig Grogan:
Mark Geragos: Okay. And then he said that, what was on the call sheet was that she witnessed a burglary on Covena, correct? 459 is a Penal Code Section for burglary?
Craig Grogan: Yes.
Mark Geragos: On 12:24 at 11:40 a.m.?
Craig Grogan: That's what it says.
Mark Geragos: Okay. And she said she saw the van and the safe being removed from the house, correct?
Craig Grogan: That's what it says.
This information was passed on to Detective Stough, who made the initial follow up call to Jackson. He filed a police report which is quoted verbatim in the book Presumed Guilty (Matt Dalton and Bonnie Hearn Hill), on page 59:
On December 27th, 2002 at 1830 hours, I received information from Detective Blom and police clerk Gallagher of information on this burglary. I was provided with a copy of the police report along with a separate typed page that indicated that at 1610 hours on 12-27-02, a Diane Jackson (via Sergeant Ed Steele) said she witnessed the 459 (the California burglary statute) on Covena on 12-24-02 at 1140 hours. She saw the van and a safe being removed from the house.
Detective Stough called Jackson at 6:30 that same evening and took her statement which included the description of the van and the three men she saw with it. It was this information that prompted the police to begin searching for these men in connection to the burglary and possibly the disappearance of Laci. Their efforts included the distribution of a flier as well as directing patrol officers to investigate through their sources on the streets.
Diane Jackson reported that she saw a safe and the actions by the police confirmed her report. Although the prosecution attempted to debunk the claim during the trial, there was never any information provided that conclusively contradicted Jackson’s report.
When did Diane
Jackson call the tip-line?
Now that we know what was documented on the call sheet and police reports as to what Diane Jackson said, we should establish her credibility as a witness. She has absolutely no reason to fabricate her story, but any eyewitness account of anything can by faulty. The trial record contains numerous references to her report, what she said, and when she said it. Unfortunately, many of these references are unclear and appear to contradict one another.
The day and time of the call, depending on when it actually occurred, may or may not conclusively prove she saw the safe but it doesn’t under any circumstance prove that she didn’t see the safe.
According to the trial record, it’s possible that she called either before or after the Medinas returned home on December 26, about 4:30 p.m.
If Diane Jackson called before the Medinas returned then this would prove the she saw the safe as stated. There would simply be no other way that Jackson could have known about the safe.
This would mean that what she saw she immediately recognized as a burglary and phoned police. Some of the trial record indicates that the call was placed on the 24th:
From Defense Opening Statement:
The other thing you have got is, you have got Diane Jackson, which came in for the truth. Diane Jackson specifically called in at 11:40 a.m. on 12-24…
…And then she goes home and she told the police immediately.
Given the other evidence, both of these appear to be misstatements. We find out that the 11:40 time is the time she’s driving by the house, not when she’s making a phone call. It’s more likely that she didn’t recognize this event as a burglary, therefore would not report it as such at the time. Furthermore, the call came in via the tip line at the command center, which was not set up at the time.
Some have attacked Jackson’s credibility for not reporting the burglary at this time. But it’s perfectly reasonable that her initial impression didn’t indicate anything out of the ordinary. It was only later that she thought about and that perhaps it was strange that they seemed to stop what they were doing, and even later while under hypnosis, she may have perceived them as threatening.
During the cross examination of Ron Cloward, the following discussion took place between Mark Geragos and David Harris:
Mark Geragos: And the information about the three people who were, let me just show you something. Got Bates stamp 14765. And I would just ask if I could, do you remember what date, Mr. Harris, my Mr. Harris, do you remember what date that's from?
David Harris: Which one? What's the dates?
Mark Geragos: For Diane Jackson.
David Harris: Looks like 12-26.
Mark Geragos: Okay.
Mark Geragos: Does it appear that at 4:10 that Diane Jackson called and said that she witnessed the 459 on Covena at 11:40? She saw the van and the safe being removed from the house?
This is only documentation that specifically mentions the date of the 26th, but it also refers to the time of 4:10 which is also mentioned elsewhere in connection with the date of the 27th. It sounds like Harris had trouble reading the document. But it’s interesting that a “7” would appear as a “6”, even if scribbled.
For Diane Jackson to
have made the call at this time, it would mean that she would have
had to make the connection between what she saw and the
disappearance of Laci, and still report it as a burglary. This
scenario seems unlikely because it’s probably that if this were the
connection Jackson was making, then she would have heard about
Laci’s disappearance sooner and would have called sooner as the news
had spread well throughout the area well before then.
The question has been asked of “Why would she wait two days to report a burglary, or at least an entire day to report a valuable tip regarding Laci’s disappearance?” But if she made the call on the 26th, the question becomes moot because the sighting of the safe was documented. The question is valid however, in that it helps to determine when she made the call. The reasonable answer is that she wouldn’t have waited to make the report for either reason – that even by that time she hadn’t realized she had witnessed anything out of the ordinary.
If Diane Jackson called after the Medina's returned then it most likely means that she had heard about the burglary sometime after the Medina's returned home and made the connection. If this were the case, then the possibility exists that she was also made aware of certain details about the burglary such as:
• Only that a burglary had occurred at the Medina house
• That a safe was stolen
• The time the Medina's left home on the 24th
It’s possible then that after she heard about the burglary and perhaps when the Medinas left and what was taken and phoned the tip line and made a report only in reference to the burglary. But there are two factors that don’t support this conclusion:
1. The call sheet and police report were concise as to what she said when she called. She spoke to Sgt. Steely and he documented the call. It’s a stretch to go from what she may have said to what he had written down. A miscommunication of that type usually doesn’t happen until it’s transcribed down the line a few times.
2. She would still have to have seen something other than the van and men in order for her to make any connection to the burglary. Knowing that the Medina's were not home, the men would have to appear to either have access to the house, or be taking something from it.
Other portions of the transcript seem to point towards the 27th as the date of the call and to resolve apparent contradictions:
Mark Geragos: Right. Nobody else reported this burglary, nobody else came by, said Hey, I saw a safe in front of the house, I saw a dolly in front of the house, prior to the Medina's making the report, correct?
Craig Wend: Not that I know of.
Mark Geragos: Detective, specifically, once again, this is a sheet like what we had up before on Harshman's, correct?
Craig Grogan: Correct.
Mark Geragos: Okay. And specifically it's a sheet that was phoned in at, looks like 4:10, looks like from Sergeant Ed Steele; is that right?
Craig Grogan: Yes.
Mark Geragos: And who is he?
Craig Grogan: He's a sergeant with the Modesto Police Department. He was assigned to go –
You are also going to hear from some other people, a woman probably, you probably going to hear from a woman by the name of Diane Jackson who called in a tip, saying that on the 24th, she called this in on the 27th -- DA Opening Statement
Birgit Fladager: Officer Hicks, perhaps the answer is not given, your last answer. You are also not familiar with the report that Diane Jackson made, you are not familiar with the report that Diane Jackson made at 10:30 in the morning on December 27th where she talks about seeing three dark-skinned males near a white van. She reports seeing this at 11:40 in the morning. She didn't recognize the men. It was a white van with no markings. Men were not wearing uniforms. She couldn't remember what they were wearing. She could not recall any details about the van, other than what was white. She gave no other information than that. You don't know with that report either?
Michael Hicks: Actually I am familiar with that one, yes.
Although the record remains somewhat ambiguous as to the actual date of the report, any of the possible scenarios still point to a reasonable conclusion that Diane Jackson actually saw the safe being removed from the house on December 24. In examining the subsequent events following her initial report and search for the assailants, we find even more evidence to support this conclusion.
The Burglary Solved
The circumstances regarding the burglary investigation and the arrests of Steven Todd and Donald Pearce is another involved discussion and beyond the scope of this article. The scenario presented by the police and prosecutor apparently satisfied the jury that there was no connection between the burglary and Laci. But it is important to note that while the police announced that they were satisfied they had solved the burglary, the statements presented by the two admitted perpetrators demonstrate various inconsistencies to other known facts and lends credibility that the burglary occurred on December 24, not December 26 and that Diane Jackson was a witness.
sleepy, verrrry sleepy…
Another facet of the case that also ultimately validates a December 24th burglary is the hypnosis of Diane Jackson. In analyzing this issue, we must first ask the simple yet very importation question:
Why was Diane
To answer that, let’s examine the events surrounding the first person to be hypnotized as part of the investigation, Kristin Dempewolfe.
Drawing from various news reports, motions, and trial transcripts, we have learned the following things about Dempewolfe’s involvement:
1. She was a so-called “Laci look-alike”, about the same height, weight and hair color - and pregnant on Dec 24.
2. She also often walked in the area with her dog.
3. She may have walked past the Peterson house about 9:30 a.m. on the 24th, saw Scott loading the umbrellas into his truck.
4. She wasn’t certain in her recollection that these incidents occurred on the 24th – it may have been a different day, and, she usually walked later in the afternoon.
5. The reason she was hypnotized was to establish that she did indeed walk on the morning of the 24th.
Dempewolfe offered no evidence that would point to the burglary or
other information that would suggest Laci was abducted. Therefore,
she wouldn’t need to have her memory enhanced to look for additional
details about something in this regard. However, the only evidence
that police were looking for was evidence that would help build a
case against Scott.
First, she couldn’t say for certain that she walked the morning of the 24th. Police needed her to “remember” that she did, thus, providing an alternate explanation to why so many people stated they saw Laci. Second, if she saw Scott loading umbrellas into his truck, it’s reasonable to conclude they were looking for additional details there – if perhaps she saw something other than umbrellas.
Further, Dr. Pennington, according to court transcripts, was probably attempting to influence Dempewolfe into remembering something she just wasn’t sure about. This, along with other solid legal rationale, was the basis for Geragos’ motion to prevent her from testifying at trial. Unfortunately, the same rule also applied to Diane Jackson. The difference is, Jackson’s testimony most likely would have tipped the scale of reasonable doubt the other way.
Kristin Dempewolfe was
not hypnotized in an attempt to find out information about Laci’s
possible adductors because she hadn’t seen anything in the first
place to indicate this. Even if she had, she had walked by the house
even before Scott left and before Laci took her walk.
Diane Jackson, on the other hand, may have been hypnotized for the reasons put forth – that the men she saw may have abducted Laci and did she remember any further details that would help track them down? But if the hypnosis of Dempewolfe was for the sole purpose of implicating Scott, then it stands to reason that Jackson’s hypnosis was done for the same reason.
By that time, the police had already “solved” the burglary and most of their attention was focused on Scott. Not only were they searching the bay, searching the house and tapping Scott’s phones but they admitted after the trial that they had their man and most of their efforts were an attempt to prove it.
But then what did they need from Jackson? How could she help them in their case against Scott? It was her police report- they needed her to “clarify” and “remember” that she didn’t see a safe on the morning of the 24th. Apparently this was not the result of the interviews or hypnosis – otherwise we would have surely heard about it.
On September 12, 2003, the Modesto Bee reported:
A doctor hypnotized Diane Jackson at the Modesto Police Department in an attempt to draw out more details. In a statement to police, Jackson also provided information that conflicts with authorities' version of a burglary that happened around the time Laci Peterson disappeared.
Was the Modesto Police intentionally trying to prohibit these
witnesses from ever taking the stand? It doesn’t seem so – they
wanted Dempewolfe to testify, and they wanted Jackson to testify but
only to facts that neither of them reported or remembered.
Regardless, the fact that Diane Jackson was hypnotized demonstrates
– along with other evidence – that she saw a safe being removed from
the Medina house on the morning of the 24th.
Occam’s Razor and Beyond
If the principle of
Occam’s Razor demonstrates that the Medina burglary and the
disappearance of Laci are somehow related then another question is
raised, “how are they related?”
The relationship between the two events is a spectrum – ranging from a direct cause-and-effect relationship to two completely separate and independent events.
The simplest explanation, if the burglary occurred the morning of the 24th, is that the three men at the Medina house abducted Laci. Moving along the spectrum, they may have had only some involvement in or knowledge of her abduction, or they were not involved at all, but had an awareness of her or she of them, or there was no connection at all. By considering the possible details needed to explain those various scenarios, it’s easy to see that the further you move from the cause-and-effect relationship the more details that you will need to satisfy an explanation. And most likely, those details are unnecessary.
Evidence that proved Diane Jackson witnessed the burglary, along with other supporting facts, would most likely have raised a substantial amount of reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors. But because she was prohibited from taking the stand, or no other solid documentation was provided, the premise couldn’t be presented as fact. And going back to the early days of the investigation, it’s clear that this evidence was leading in a direction other than Scott Peterson. For whatever reason, the evidence was not being followed, ignored by the investigators – either negligently or purposefully – and forcing them to explain the two events as unrelated, separate incidences. In the process, unnecessary details were introduced and accepted – details that should have been shaved off – by Occam’s Razor.