April 24, 2003 -- In spite of all the miracles of modern forensic science that can let a murder victim reveal secrets from beyond the grave, an old-time rule may prove true in the Laci Peterson case: Dead men tell no tales.
Forensics experts say it will be tough for investigators to recover from the decomposed remains any hard, physical evidence that will convict Scott Peterson of charges that he killed his wife and their unborn baby.
The corpses, recovered from a beach just a few miles from the Berkeley Marina where Scott Peterson told police he was fishing on the day he reported Laci's disappearance, may have spent up to four months in the cold San Francisco Bay waters. And while Laci's unborn son washed ashore with his umbilical cord still attached, her remains were reportedly in an advanced state of decay, with only the torso intact.
Lawrence Kobilinsky, a professor of forensic science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, says that given such harsh conditions, much of the evidence might be long gone.
"Things happen to a submerged body," said Kobilinsky. "[Evidence] erodes and is removed off the surface of the body over time, you have small and big animals … Put that all together with the extended time of decomposition and it's very difficult to examine the remains. What you have left is a decomposing nightmare."
The Tale of the Dead
Still, "The body is an important piece of medical and legal evidence," Kobilinsky said. "There is still information you can get out of that body."
One of the most important pieces of the Peterson puzzle investigators may be able to determine is the manner of Laci's death.
Medical examiners would first look for wounds and marks that indicate fatal wounds or blows. A chemical analysis of the fluids and remaining organs would be done to seek out any toxic or otherwise suspicious substances.
"Was she strangled, was she shot, was she stabbed?" asked Kobilinsky. "The medical examiner's autopsy and toxicology reports will reveal the specific, clinical explanation of her death."
But without the head, forensic investigators still wouldn't be able to tell if Laci was knocked unconscious from a simple fall, or from a malicious deed.
"It's possible — but unlikely — that the whole thing was an accident," said Kobilinsky.
And that's probably why investigators have taken a critical eye to Laci's remains. They need to be sure why the corpse turned up less than intact.
"It's possible that wildlife attacked the body while submerged," he said.
But if Laci was indeed killed by Scott or another yet unknown suspect who dismembered her corpse, it might contain telltale "tool marks" that show how her bones were mechanically severed.
"You can tell the difference between an animal bite and a saw, for example," Kobilinsky said. "Bone is pretty sturdy — even in a marine environment."
Connecting the Dots?
Such proof would also lead forensic investigators to look more closely at other pieces of evidence, such as a black tarp that was also recovered near Laci's remains. If investigators can find traces of Laci's DNA or skin cells on the tarp, it might suggest to investigators that it was used to help hide and transport her body.
"If her body was in the tarp in pieces, it doesn't look like a body, and that would explain how she ended up where she did," said Kobilinsky.
Investigators have been tight-lipped about just what evidence may be arrayed against Scott Peterson. But Kobilinsky believes the prosecutor's office has a lot more than circumstantial evidence and a decomposed body.
"My hunch is that there's more than just trace evidence," he said.
Ideally, he suspects a previous search of the Petersons' Modesto home might have have yielded a tool — a saw, a knife, an ax — that was used to destroy Laci's body for disposal at sea.
"There must be something that has caused them to come to the conclusion that she was killed in Modesto and then transported to the bay," he said.