Conner's Autopsy


Dr. Brian Peterson, the Medical Examiner who performed Conner's autopsy, is a forensic pathologist employed by the Forensic Medical Group in Fairfield.  


Autopsy Summary


History: The history provided to Peterson was that of a body found on the shore. Peterson did not know this was Conner and the female body had not yet been found. Consequently, the typical forensic pathology question in this type of case is: is this a stillborn baby or a live-born baby? Initially, then, Peterson was not concerned with explaining Conner's state of decomposition compared to Laci's because Laci wasn't yet known about. 


External Exam: The external exam revealed no clothing, since it was a fetus. There was some material associated with the body, particularly some clear plastic tape (a lot like wrapping tape or boxing tape), one and a half loops of plastic tape around the neck of the fetus, with a knot near the left shoulder.  The skin beneath the tape was not injured, and there was approximately a 2-centimeter gap between the neck and the tape when pulling the tape so it was firm against one side of the neck. Peterson removed the tape by cutting it and gave it to a criminalist. Peterson concluded the association between the body and the tape was coincidental--the tape simply ended up on the body.  There was also some material over the left ear, adhering to the head, which Peterson believed to be kelp or other vegetative material.  However, when it was removed, the ear remained folded over and there was a purple discoloration on Conner, which Peterson said is more consistent with the iodine in kelp than with bruising. (Peterson is not the person who removed this material from Conner's ear). Conner was decomposing, in general terms.  He weighed 1160 grams (approximately 2. 5 pounds). A crown-of-head measurement could not be taking because the head was collapsing.  Crown-heel length was 48 centimeters (approximately 19 inches). Based on these measurements, Conner could have reached full-term. The skin was quite soft, in keeping with maceration, an effect on tissue soaking in fluid. No vernix on the body. The bones in the skull were overriding, which happens as the brain liquefies. There was a tear near the right shoulder that exposed skeletal muscle and the structures beneath. The tear extended onto the abdominal wall and portions of the small and large intestines protruded through the tear. There was no scalloping, no curved marks around the edges. Concluded it was simply from tissue falling apart or being pulled apart due to tidal action, it wasn't due to animal feeding. A portion of the colon protruded from the anus. There was a portion of the umbilical cord present, measuring a half centimeter (less than a 1/4 inch), and the edge was ragged, like it fell apart or pulled apart. It was not cut.  


Internal Exam: There were no specific changes of either congenital abnormality or disease. The organs, in general, were soft and liquefied, in keeping with decomposition. The spleen and kidney could not be weighed because they were liquefied. There was more liquefaction inside the right side of the chest as opposed to the left because of the tear.  The changes were simply the result of decomposition and immersion. 


Estimated gestational age: Nine months, based on the crown to heel and the crown to rump measurement. However, the body was soft and decomposing.  As tissues decompose, they tend to expand, and expanding tissues can affect the whole body. Peterson left the gestational age determination to Dr.  Galloway, an anthropologist.  


Live birth: Peterson could not rule out live birth. 


Plastic bag found near Conner: Under cross, Peterson was asked if Conner had been placed in a bag and the tape was around the neck having been looped around once and knotted so that once placed in the water, the baby would have been in a protected environment--if that was consistent with Conner's decomposition and the tape around his neck. Admitted it was possible that Conner's body was protected in some other way, but did not consider it likely. Peterson was not aware of the plastic found near Conner when he did the autopsy. 


Float test not performed: The float test is used to determine live birth, with the idea that if a baby is stillborn, it has never had a chance to draw a breath, and thus the lungs are heavy and simply will not float in water. On the other hand, if the baby is live born and has drawn breath, lungs are expanded, there is air, and they will float. Problem is there can be postmortem gas formation in the lung due to decomposition. Peterson does not rely on the float test and did not perform one.  


Estimated time in water unprotected: Not more than a couple of days. 


Estimate of Gestational Age


As part of the autopsy, Peterson took two measurements, the crown-rump length and crown-heel length.  The crown-rump measurement of 32 cm indicated Conner's gestational age was 9 months.  Peterson did not give the details of the crown-heel length in his testimony.

Brian Peterson: The crown-rump length, from my report here, was 32 centimeters.

Mark Geragos: How many inches is that?

Brian Peterson: I'm sorry?

Mark Geragos: How much inches does that translate into?

Brian Peterson: About 15.

Mark Geragos: Closer to 17?

Brian Peterson: Seventeen. There's 2.54 centimeters per inch, but I wasn't a math major.

Mark Geragos: Okay. The, the, and then is there a chart that you then use to show to convert to the number of months?

Brian Peterson: There was.

Mark Geragos: Okay. And that chart put the baby's age at nine months; is that correct?

Brian Peterson: Correct.

~~Trial Testimony~~

The nine months gestational age coincided with Peterson's external observations:

Mark Geragos:  Okay.  Did you ever tell Detective Grogan -- and it looks like he interviewed you on Monday, April 14th, at about 3:15.  Is that -- I know you probably talked to a number of people regarding this case.  But did you ever tell him that the baby was a full-term male infant with advanced stages of decomposition?  

Brian Peterson:  That's just what I described in the report.  

~~Prelim Hearing Testimony~~

Mark Geragos: And you, you also characterized in your report, did you not, previously when you've testified, that the baby appeared to you to be a full-term baby; is that correct?

Brian Peterson: Correct.


Mark Geragos: Okay. And when he first came in and you saw him just alone, you had estimated him as actually having been, what, a nine month fetus? Or as actually as a full-term infant? Or was there no difference for you?

Brian Peterson: Well, what's "term"? 280 days. So depending on how one measures, and based, again, only on the crude measurement that I could do, nine months and/or term.


David Harris: You were also asked about your determination of age of the body of Conner Peterson. And go to that real quick. Did you list, under autopsy diagnosis, a particular gestational age for Conner Peterson?

Brian Peterson: On the first page of my report, I'll read to you. I said estimated gestational age, nine months.

~~Trial Testimony~~

Evidence that Conner was born


From the testimony of Detective Grogan, the possibility that Conner was born alive was discussed at the autopsy:

Mark Geragos: Now, when you talked to, you talked to Villalobos, what day was that?
Craig Grogan: It was April 14th of 2003.
Mark Geragos: And he called you, or you called him, do you remember? Doesn't matter.
Craig Grogan: He called me. But I believe it's based on a message I left him earlier that morning.
Mark Geragos: Okay.
Judge Delucchi: And he specifically told you that they had recovered a male fetus; is that correct?
Craig Grogan: Yes.
Mark Geragos: And that the baby was recovered at 4:30 on Sunday the 13th, right?
Craig Grogan: Correct.
Mark Geragos: Okay. He told you that he had heard from detectives, the detectives attending the autopsy that there was some evidence that the child may have been born alive, correct?
Craig Grogan: Yes.
Mark Geragos: And he also told you that there was no umbilical cord attached, correct?
Craig Grogan: That's correct.

In his initial report to Grogan, Dr. Peterson said he was uncertain whether the umbilical cord was tied or fell of because of decomposition, and that he couldn't rule out that Conner was born:

Mark Geragos: Okay. Okay. And Doctor Peterson and you had a conversation after he had examined the baby as well and done the autopsy, right?
Craig Grogan: Yes.
Mark Geragos: And he was unable to state for certain, this is what he told you, whether or not the umbilical cord had been tied at one point along the ragged end of the umbilical cord, correct?
Craig Grogan: Yes.
Mark Geragos: And he also told you that he just was uncertain as to whether or not the umbilical cord had been tied along the ragged end, or whether it had come off as part of the decomposition, right?
Craig Grogan: That's correct.
Mark Geragos: Okay. And he also told you that he was, he could not say for certain whether the child had been stillborn, or had gone through a birthing process, correct?
Craig Grogan: That's correct.

Evidence collected/observed during the autopsy