|Peterson Jurors See
Photos of Corpse
September 15, 2004
Grisly autopsy photographs of Scott and Laci Peterson's fetus
brought one juror to tears and had two others struggling to keep
their composure at the fertilizer salesman's murder trial Thursday.
The graphic pictures, displayed by the doctor who conducted the autopsy, showed the waterlogged, decomposed remains of the baby the couple planned to name Conner.
Scott Peterson wept, his chin to his neck, dabbing his eyes with tissues.
An alternate juror, the mother of four boys, wept into a tissue while forensic
pathologist Brian Peterson pointed out the misshapen head and soft, bloated
torso. Two other female jurors gripped tissues and looked stricken. One cast
her damp eyes around the courtroom gallery instead of gazing at the images.
Her corpse was missing the head, neck, forearms and part of her left leg,
and her rib cage and other bones speckled with barnacles were exposed.
Dr. Brian Peterson, the forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy, said
two of Laci's ribs were fractured but he could not say whether the injuries came
before or after her death. Brian Peterson isn't related to Laci or Scott Peterson.
"The only internal organ that was present was the uterus," Peterson told
jurors. "I was limited by the fact there was so much of the body absent."
Scott Peterson, who is accused of killing his pregnant wife Dec. 24, 2002,
and dumping her body in the San Francisco Bay, stared down at his
lap as the pictures flashed across a large projection screen.
The pathologist, who said he had testified in court 100 to 200 times,
spoke in a loud, matter-of-fact tone as he described the photographs.
Directing jurors' attention to one close-up, he said, "I simply
swung the uterus down on the towel to take a picture of it."
In the front row of the jury box, a middle aged woman looked pained and
turned her head to the side. During jury selection, she told lawyers
someone close to her once lost a child. The juror to her left, a woman
who works for an adoption agency, brought her hand to her mouth
Dr. Peterson said he examined the remains for any signs that Laci's
extremities had been physically cut off, but could find nothing conclusive.
"For example, if a joint were taken apart with a knife or
a saw, that would oftentimes leave marks on the bone.
There were no such marks," Peterson said.
The pathologist examined both mother and child and found
their condition too poor to determine the cause and manner of their
deaths. Dr.Peterson told the jury that he believed the boy was expelled
from his mother's womb after her body was placed in the bay.
The fetus' remains appeared gelatin-like, its outer tissue somewhat transparent.
"This body was very soft," Dr. Peterson said. "It came apart very easily."
"For whatever reason that Laci met her demise, I believe it was her death that
caused Conner's death, that he was still in her uterus," Brian Peterson said.
He said the tides and currents in San Francisco Bay, or fish eating
away at her flesh, could have caused the body to tear apart.
Dr. Peterson said the fetus' body was much better preserved than its mother's
body and still had all of its limbs and organs. Nothing on the remains indicated
it had been severely damaged by currents, tidal action or fish feeding, he said.
"If he had spent substantial unprotected time in the water like Laci did, he would
have been eaten. There simply wouldn't have been anything left," Dr. Peterson said.
"My conclusion ... is that Conner had likely been protected by the uterus" and
expelled possibly weeks after Laci's body was put in the water, he added.
He explained in detail how autopsies are performed by
cutting open the chest and head and removing the organs.
"In this case, there was no brain to examine because the head was missing.
There was no heart or lungs to examine because the chest was empty," he said.
He said he could tell the woman had been pregnant by the size of her uterus, which
had expanded to about 10 inches. It normally is the size of a golf ball, he said.
Peterson said the top of the uterus was open and there were
no signs of a cesarian section. There was no evidence Laci had
given birth prior to her death. Her uterus had not returned to
more of a normal size as is typical after a woman gives birth,
"That means Ms. Peterson was pregnant and the baby had not
been delivered when she died?" asked prosecutor Dave Harris.
"That is my opinion," Peterson replied. "I determined
the baby had exited through the top of the uterus."
Whether Conner was born alive or died in the womb along with his mother is a key
battleground in the capital trial. The defense claims that assailants kidnapped
the 27-year-old expectant mother, as she walked the couple's dog around the
neighborhood after Peterson had left for his fishing trip, held her until the child was
full-term and then — long after Scott Peterson was under round-the-clock police
surveillance — cut the baby out of her abdomen and killed both mother and son.
Prosecutors are trying to prove that Peterson killed his eight-months pregnant
wife on or around Dec. 24, 2002, then dumped her weighted body into the bay.
The remains of Laci Peterson and her fetus washed up in April 2003
not far from the Berkeley Marina, where Scott Peterson says he launched
his boat that Christmas Eve morning for a solo fishing trip.
Defense lawyers maintain that someone else abducted and killed Laci.
They claim the baby was born alive and killed later.
Prosecutors maintain the fetus was expelled from Laci's decaying corpse.
Under questioning by defense lawyer Mark Geragos, the pathologist
acknowledged that he could not rule out a live birth. But, he said, the
markedly better condition of the fetus when compared to Laci's
body strongly suggested the baby was protected in her uterus from animal
feeding, tidal currents and other elements until just before it washed ashore.
He also suggested that a gash and a length of tape on Conner's
body were not the work of assailants, as the defense has
suggested, but the result of being tossed in the bay waters.
The plastic tape looped around Conner's neck left no marks on
the body, indicating that it had never been pulled taut, Peterson said.
"I could see neither external nor internal damage that could
have been caused by this material," Dr. Peterson said
A laceration in the torso "could've been caused by the physical
action of the body being thrown up on shore," he testified.
Police found no forensic evidence of a violent murder in the couple's home,
and four months into the trial, prosecutors have yet to spell out how they
believe Peterson killed his wife. But during questioning, prosecutor
Dave Harris quizzed the pathologist about suffocation or strangulation.
"Certainly smothering is one of those ways that is not likely
to produce blood and fluids outside the body," Peterson said.
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