Rigor Mortis

In the People's Closing Arguments, Rick Distaso argued that Scott strangled or smothered Laci on the night of December 23, or the morning of December 24 while she was dressing.  Let's examine the implications of this timeline for the effect rigor mortis would have on getting her into the boat.


Scott strangled or smothered Laci on the night of December 23.


That leaves 14 hours from the time Laci completed her call to her mother and Scott brought her to the warehouse and put her into the boat (8:30 p.m. - 10:30 a.m.).  If he murdered her while she still had the same pants on that she wore to Salon Salon, then he had to do it by about 9:30 p.m., and that leaves 13 hours before he finally gets her into the boat.  The Prosecution did a demonstration with Kim Fulbright (People's 106F-L), showing that it was possible for a pregnant woman Laci's size to get in between the benches of the boat and not be seen. 


However, Fulbright was flexible, able to move and twist and turn in order to get into position.  According to most sources, rigor sets in within 3 hours, with maximum stiffness by 12 hours.  If Scott murdered her while she was still dressed, or undressing, and kept her in the house overnight, Laci would have been at maximum rigor by the time he attempted to get her into the boat, and thus not at all flexible.  Even Dr. Peterson's testimony, under direct examination, validates this conclusion.

Brian Peterson: Sure. That's called rigor mortis. It's post-mortem stiffening of the muscles. The rule of thumb in our textbooks is that typically rigor will be appreciable, say, in within two to four hours of death. By twelve to 24 hours fully formed. After that it will start passing off.

Another factor is the anal discharge of any remaining stools that often occurs during the onset of rigor.  Even if Laci had failed to eliminate any bodily fluids at her death, expecting that she continued to do so for the duration of the time rigor was setting in is asking a lot.  You not only have the 14 hours from the time of death till he puts her in the boat, you then have her in the boat another 3 hours or so.  Yet no trace evidence was found in the home, in the truck, on the blue tarp that she is supposed to have been wrapped in, or in the boat. 


You can remove a couple hours by assuming she was already in bed when he murdered her.  But then, you still have rigor setting in well before he gets her to the boat, and you have the added complication of explaining why he put her back into those same pants when he intended to say she was wearing black pants.  If he was going to redress her, why wouldn't he redress her in her walking outfit, so he could then point to the hamper and the closet and show those clothes were the only clothes missing? 


You can reduce the rigor problem somewhat by having him put her into the pickup right away.  The temperature dropped to the mid-30s during the night, which would be considerably cooler than the house temperature.  But 13 hours is still a long time, and some rigor would undoubtedly have set in.  Moreover, you have the added problem of the umbrellas.  Distaso argued that Scott covered her with the 3 market umbrellas to conceal her body.  We estimate the combined weight of the market umbrellas was close to 100 lbs.  (See Item 53A-C, market umbrellas).


You can make it all work if you assume a trip to the Bay in the middle of the night.  Yet the police uncovered no evidence that he made such a trip, such as gas purchases or eyewitnesses that saw him coming or going.  Moreover, Scott's boat doesn't have lights, and the weather conditions indicate that it was mostly cloudy or scattered clouds during the night, and so he would not have had advantage of a full moon and clear sky to help with visibility. 


Geragos questioned Dr. Peterson at length about rigor mortis, but Peterson was very vague with his answers, saying "there are so many variables. Depending on the environment and the person, and their body composition, and their state of health. All sorts of things can affect that."  That left it far too ambiguous.  In hindsight, a Defense expert should have been used to plainly show the stages of rigor at room temperature and also at the outside mid-30s temperature to visually demonstrate that Laci could not have been put into one of Kim Fulbright's position in the boat having been dead for 13 hours or so. 


Scott strangled or smothered Laci on the morning of December 24 while she was dressing.


Distaso did not offer this as a possibility in his Opening Statement.  Instead, the emphasis was on Laci being found in the same pants she wore to Salon Salon as a key point in establishing that Laci was murdered on the night of the 23rd.  Both his comments in the Opening Statement and his direct examination of Amy Rocha prove that quite well. 

From the OS: 

But Amy Rocha remembers what she was wearing, and has always given that description of what Laci was wearing that day. You're going to hear that her body was recovered on April 14th wearing khaki colored pants. >>> Amy Rocha said that when Laci was last seen on December 23rd she was wearing that black jacket, that cream colored scarf, those khaki pants, and a maternity blouse that she describes as either being a dark colored maternity blouse that either had flowers or polka dots on it (italics added for emphasis).

From Direct Examination of Amy Rocha: 

Rick Distaso: Amy, I apologize for not asking about this earlier. The, take a look at this pair of maternity pants and can you tell me if the pants that you saw Laci in on the 23rd, are they the same color as those pants you're holding up there on People's 11?

Amy Rocha: Yes.

Rick Distaso: And feel the material, and how would you describe that?

Amy Rocha: They're like a stretchy cotton spandex.

Rick Distaso: Okay. Is that similar to the material that you remember Laci's pants being when you saw her on the 23rd?

Amy Rocha: Yes.

Distaso added the morning of the 24th just in case there were some jurors who considered both the rigor mortis problem and the other evidence that Laci was still alive that morning. 


Adding the morning of the 24th to the timeline for the murder does eliminate the problem of rigor as far as getting her into the boat in a curled-up position, but it presents a problem with the clothes.  Why would Laci be putting on the same pair of pants that she wore the day before?  If they were not the same pants, then the question remains, Why is she getting dressed up that morning?  In each of the four visits that Margarita Nava made, arriving about 8:30 in the morning, Laci would be dressed the same way, in black pants.  Nava also testified that on the 23rd she did not remember Laci changing clothes to go to the grocery store.  However, Laci did change clothes to go to her doctors appointment and then later to Salon Salon.  It doesn't make sense that on this day, when she had nowhere special to go until 6 p.m. that night, and had things to do to get ready for the brunch the next day, that she would wake in the morning and put on that "nice pair of capri pants," as Distaso called them.   


Furthermore, why didn't Scott, after he murdered her, put her in the pants he was going to say she was wearing?  Again, no reasonable explanation for his failure to do so, considering that he allegedly took care of other details, such as putting McKenzie on his leash and letting him out to appear as though Laci was abducted during her walk.



Even without Geragos calling an expert witness to discuss rigor mortis, the Jurors should have been able to gather from Dr. Peterson's testimony that rigor would have been at or near maximum stiffness when Scott tried to squeeze her between the benches in the boat if he killed her the night before.  If they opted to go with the morning of the 24th for the murder, they should have questioned why Laci would be putting on "nice" pants when that was not her customary behavior and she had no where special to go till 6 p.m. that night.  At the least, they should have asked themselves and each other, Why didn't Scott put her in the pants he was going to say she was wearing?