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Justice for Laci

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On Aug. 21 the remains of Laci Peterson and the son she wanted to name Conner finally made it back to their hometown of Modesto, Calif. With the coroners and forensic scientists having completed examining them, the bodies were quietly returned for the burial they and their loved ones had been denied for months. In a statement released a week earlier, Laci’s kin asked for privacy so that family and friends could mourn. “Please treat her in death respectfully,” read the statement, “so that we as her family will be allowed to lay her and Conner to rest in dignity and peace.”

Dignity they will always have. But as Scott Peterson’s Sept. 9 preliminary hearing approaches, it’s hard to imagine that Laci and Conner will find much peace. At the hearing, the prosecution will for the first time begin to lay out its case against Scott Peterson. And with that – and the vociferous defense rebuttals involving satanic rituals and adulterous affairs that are sure to follow – one of the most bewildering and transfixing murder cases in years will truly begin.

In June, Stanislaus County superior court judge Al Girolami slapped everyone involved in the Peterson affair with a gag order; since then, only bits of evidence have leaked out. Now, however, PEOPLE, after an investigation based on interviews with multiple sources and access to confidential documents and photos, can offer a preview, with new details, of at least some of the controversial issues on which the trial may hinge. Among the most contentious: If Laci was only 7 1/2 months pregnant at the time of her disappearance, around Dec. 24, how is it that Conner’s body was found with tape that may have been deliberately knotted around his neck? And what is to be made of the indications, however tentative, that somehow Conner could possibly have been born alive? If Laci was murdered on Dec. 23, why did several witnesses report seeing her alive on the morning of Dec. 24?

Ever since Scott Peterson’s arrest on April 18, when state attorney general Bill Lockyer pronounced the case against Peterson a “slam dunk,” the prosecution has seemed confident. Many outside legal experts believe Stanislaus County D.A. James Brazelton lacks a smoking gun to convict Peterson, 30, but feel he can build a powerful case based mainly on circumstantial evidence, most notably motive and opportunity. “I think what the prosecution has got are a lot of little bricks that they’re going to use to build a big wall,” says Stan Goldman, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who has taught several principals on both sides of the case, including deputy D.A. Joseph “Rick” Distaso. Such walls can be quite formidable. “Circumstantial cases can be very difficult to defend,” says one veteran L.A. prosecutor. “The more circumstances you have to point to guilt, the more ridiculous the defense story has to become.”

Although PEOPLE has not reviewed all of the evidence that may be relevant to the case, among the documents and photographs that correspondents have seen, and interviews they have done, there are certainly bombshells to be found. The question is whether they will pulverize Peterson’s defense – or offer attorney Mark Geragos a chance to sow enough reasonable doubt to blow a breach in the prosecution’s wall of guilt.

From the start, prosecutors and their supporters emphasized the fact that the bodies of Laci and Conner had turned up in the same waters, San Francisco Bay, where Scott said he had taken his boat on Dec. 24. As a deputy district attorney in L.A. county who is not involved in the case drily observes, “What a coincidence that of all the places in California or the western United States the body just happens to wash ashore in the place he was fishing.” But the actual location of the remains may pose some sticking points for the prosecution as well. Although Laci’s body, which was found on April 14, was on the rocks, Conner’s body, which was discovered a day earlier, was found roughly 15 feet from the shoreline, near footprints and some tire marks, raising the possibility at least that someone or something had deposited him there separately. What’s more, it seems clear that the defense intends to argue that investigators did not properly secure the crime scene around Conner’s remains, because no casts of the tire marks or footprints were ever made. An official with the Richmond police says, however, “That was just a big huge watery area, and there was nothing to take footprints of. It looked like the body was just washed up by the tide.”

Of potentially far greater significance, however, is the condition of the two sets of remains. The photos viewed by PEOPLE of Laci’s and Conner’s bodies are horrific, but disturbing in very different ways. As reported initially, Laci’s body was little more than a torso. She was found with shreds of what appeared to be light-colored maternity pants – Scott said on the morning she disappeared she was wearing black pants – which had gray duct tape wrapped around the outside of the crotch area, tape that some experts believe could have been used to bind her. Given the condition of the body, no cause of death could be determined.

Then there is Conner – and a host of bizarre circumstances. In contrast to his mother’s remains, Conner’s were remarkably well-preserved. Except for a laceration across his right shoulder and chest, his outer skin was more or less intact, with no sign of the umbilical cord or a placenta. But that is not to say his body was undisturbed. There is adhesive tape wrapped 1 1/2 times around the baby’s neck, with a knot two centimeters from the neck, then under the left arm and drawn across the chest to the right arm. One source speculates that the baby had been bagged and someone had wrapped the tape around the body. Next to the body investigators found what appeared to be the remnants of a plastic bag.

Nor is that all. According to a source, a detective said, “there is some evidence the child may have been born alive.” If so, that could change the case dramatically. Suddenly the timing of the murders, which investigators have previously asserted took place sometime between Dec. 23 and Dec. 24, could be off by days or even weeks.

But just how plausible is that scenario? A source tells PEOPLE there is reason to believe that Conner’s remains indicate a gestation period of 35 to 38 weeks, which would put him at about full term. The defense is reportedly trying to obtain a sonogram of Conner that Laci had on Dec. 23, during which the baby was estimated to be 31 weeks along, to compare with the body as it was found. But Jon Nordby, a director of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, who has his own company, Final Analysis Forensics, based in Tacoma, Wash., points out that sonograms don’t offer a perfect measurement of a fetus’s development. “I’ve seen them wrong by four weeks,” says Nordby, who has himself worked with hundreds of sonograms during his career. “Theoretically they are more accurate toward the end of the pregnancy than the beginning, but it’s going to be subject to interpretation.” And rest assured, adds one outside prosecutor, “if the defense has an expert testify that the child lived for some period of time, I can guarantee that the prosecution will have one who says that’s not credible based upon whatever theories their expert is using.”

Leaving aside the question of timing, there is still the fact of the tape around his body, specifically the neck. PEOPLE approached several prominent forensic scientists who have no stake in the outcome of the case to ask what might be concluded from that circumstance and the differing state of decomposition between Laci’s and Conner’s remains. According to Dr. Gregory Schmunk, the chief medical examiner-coroner for California’s Santa Clara County, the most straightforward explanation is that Laci’s decomposing body caused Conner to be forced out. “As the decomposition occurs, the abdominal wall breaks down and eventually the baby is expelled right through the abdominal wall,” says Schmunk. “That would explain why Conner is less decomposed than Laci, because Conner was in a protected uterine environment for quite some time prior to being expelled.” From that point, he continues, “the baby could have easily been entangled in the tape that was surrounding Laci.”

But Nordby questions whether it could happen accidentally – that, for example, the tape could have been floating in the water and become wrapped around Conner as the result of the movement of tides or waves. “I would doubt very much that would be something you could attribute to a natural process,” he says. The defense is sure to stress the fact that there appears to be a knot in the tape and that it is at the baby’s neck, as opposed to the knee or some other comparatively innocuous location. “I would be puzzled by the fact that the mother would be in such an advanced state of decay and the baby would be more well-preserved and have that tape,” agrees Nordby. “I would start to suspect that the two didn’t go in the water together.”

This is an online excerpt of PEOPLE magazine’s cover package.