Scott Peterson Case Not a 'Slam Dunk'

ByBryan Robinson

April 23, 2003 -- Scott Peterson has admitted cheating on his pregnant wife, and he placed himself near the area where the remains of Laci Peterson and their unborn child were found, but that doesn't make the prosecution's murder case foolproof.

Peterson, 30, has pleaded not guilty to capital murder charges in the slayings. Laci was almost eight months pregnant on Christmas Eve, when Peterson reported her missing from their Modesto, Calif., home and told police he had been fishing at the Berkeley Marina the day she disappeared.

Last week, Laci's decomposing body and the remains of her unborn son washed ashore along a San Francisco-area beach, just three miles from the Berkeley Marina, helping to spark her husband's arrest.

Police grabbed Peterson in San Diego, 30 miles from the Mexican border. He had grown a goatee and dyed all his dark hair blond, and was carrying his brother's ID and $10,000 in cash. Authorities said they arrested him before receiving DNA confirmation on the bodies because they feared he would try to flee.

While prosecutors have not revealed the evidence that implicates Peterson, California Attorney General Bill Lockyer said prosecutors had enough evidence for a "slam dunk" conviction.

Legal experts, however, say that despite the damning circumstantial evidence against Peterson — the affair, his placement near the discovery of the bodies and an alleged attempted flight — the prosecution's case may be more like a long-range jump shot that's far from certain to land in the basket.

"From my experience, you need the evidence that connects Laci Peterson [and her death] to Scott Peterson, and I don't think prosecutors have that evidence," said California-based defense attorney Brian Oxman.

Authorities have said they are conducting tests on a tarp that washed ashore following the bodies' recovery to see if there is a link to the case. There has also been speculation about traces of cement apparently found on the boat Scott used the day Laci disappeared and containers of cement police removed from the Peterson home during the investigation.

"If there were traces of cement found on the body, normally that would have been enough to arrest Scott right away," Oxman said. "But they didn't do that, and that tells me that they didn't have the physical evidence that warranted the arrest. … I think they arrested Peterson more because they thought he was a flight risk, not because of any evidence.

"It is so unfortunate for government officials to say things like 'We have a slam dunk' or that 'We're going to get him,' " Oxman continued. "Those kind of statements inflame the public and poison the jury pool. It violates ethics and the defendant's rights."

Peterson Is His Own Worst Enemy

Peterson's arrest and the slam-dunk claim did seem to incite the public in Modesto. When he arrived at the Stanislaus County jail on Friday, hundreds of people were outside, calling Peterson a "baby killer" and "murderer." Arguably, the media frenzy surrounding the case and Peterson's actions following Laci's disappearance turned the public against him.

In the weeks after his wife disappeared, Peterson admitted having an extramarital affair, triggering a falling out with Laci's family. He tried to sell the family home and traded in his wife's Land Rover for a pickup truck. Some of Laci's relatives and volunteers who helped search for the missing 27-year-old Modesto woman publicly said Scott did not behave like a grieving husband searching for his pregnant wife.

The circumstances of Peterson's arrest only seemed to confirm the public's suspicions of his involvement in Laci's disappearance.

"So many things have hurt Scott Peterson so much at this point," said attorney Eric Dubin, who represents the family of Bonny Lee Bakley, the slain wife of actor Robert Blake. "That fact that his alibi turns out to be the crime scene, that he had the blond hair and the blond goatee with $10,000 heading toward the Mexican border, the fact that he did not return home when the bodies washed ashore … These kind of actions are very troublesome and are very harmful to his presumption of innocence."

Still, some argue that too much emphasis has been placed on Peterson's altered appearance and the fact that he was 30 miles away from the Mexican border at the time of his arrest. It may be hard to explain the large sum of money Peterson had with him, but his parents live in the area. Because he had become a recognized public figure, Peterson may have tried to change his appearance to avoid being hounded by the media and the public.

"The attribution to flight risk is seriously flawed," said Oxman. "The beard that he grew looks more than a few days old. It looks like a beard that is two to three weeks old, long before any bodies washed ashore. But no one's talking about that. Why would you change your appearance? Well, I represent celebrities and you always change your appearance. You change your appearance to keep yourself from being besieged, which is just what was happening to him."

Living and Dying on Forensics

Implications aside, the prosecution's case against Peterson may depend on the strength of its forensic evidence. Some defense attorneys said they would challenge prosecution arguments that the condition of the remains matched the amount of decomposition of a body presumably dumped in an ocean on Dec. 24. Police sources told ABCNEWS last week the amount of decomposition and size of the remains were consistent with the time frame of Laci Peterson's disappearance and her physical description, and that a nursing bra typically worn by women during late-term pregnancy was found on the remains.

"What he needed to do immediately after the bodies were found and identified was go to [authorities] and he needed to bring a forensic pathologist with him so that that pathologist could examine the bodies right there," Oxman said. "That would have been a hard thing for him to do, but he should have done that from the very beginning. Now, it's like, 'Oh, he doesn't care.'

"Bodies decompose at specific rates in water," Oxman continued. "They decompose faster in warm water as opposed to cold water and differently in fresh water and salt water. If these bodies were dumped on Dec. 24, there would be certain signs of decomposition for a four-month period. My lawyer's hunch is that the decay [of these] does not correspond to the signs of a four-month decomposition."

Authorities have said the unborn fetus was still attached to the umbilical cord. Using his own pathologist, Oxman said he would try to challenge every aspect of the prosecution's forensic evidence, from the amount of decomposition to how the fetus was separated from the body.

But time is not on the defense's side for gathering evidence from the remains.

"The prosecution's case will live and die on the forensic evidence," Oxman said. "But time is not on his side. It's been [more than] a week now, and bodies decompose in a morgue. It is difficult for a pathologist to walk into a case now and tell how a body was a week ago.

"However, it's a two-way street," he added. "My pathologist could confirm what the prosecution finds and in that case, I may have to work with the prosecution to find a way to avoid the death penalty for my client."

Spin Control

Police also have not presented a theory on how Peterson allegedly killed his wife. Her body was not in great condition, and coroners are still conducting tests to determine a cause of death. However, under California law, prosecutors do not have to prove a motive or a specific cause of death.

Authorities have said they will not talk about the evidence gathered so far in the case. Perhaps the greatest evidence against Peterson is his own alibi: — that he was fishing three miles away from where the bodies were found. However, that argument can work for and against both the prosecution and the defense.

"It depends on how you spin it," said attorney Steve Cron. "If you're a prosecutor, you say that he placed himself where the bodies were found. If you're a defense attorney, you argue, 'If he's guilty, how could a guy be so stupid as voluntarily place himself where the bodies were dumped? He's not behaving like someone who has something to hide.' "

Stanislaus County District Attorney Jim Brazelton has since downplayed the "slam dunk" assertions but insists that prosecutors have enough evidence to go forward with the case. He has not decided on whether he will pursue the death penalty against Peterson.

Time and Distance Needed

Brazelton has said that it could take up to two years for Peterson to go to trial. A lengthy legal process and a venue change could help his case and slightly temper the public outrage over the deaths of Laci and the unborn child she planned to name Connor.

"I can't think of a forum worse for Scott Peterson from a defense standpoint than Modesto," Dubin said. "The thing about of change of venue is that you don't get a say in where you go. He could be sent to Simi Valley, which wouldn't make a huge difference. There's so much hatred for Scott Peterson right now that time and separation is what he needs."

And perhaps Peterson could use his media exposure to help fuel defense strategy, even if the theory may seem farfetched.

"He can say that 'everyone knew my alibi, everyone knew my whereabouts,'" Dubin said. "'So much time passed between the time Laci disappeared and the bodies were recovered that the killer could have dumped the body there and framed me.' Otherwise, I can't think of anything else that may work in his favor."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events