Laci: the Spin Wars

Susan Medina never dreamed her tree-shaded block would become a tourist attraction. But now she watches as visitors cruise by at all hours to stare at the house across the street, some stopping to pose for pictures in front of the green Modesto, Calif., ranch house they’ve seen on TV. Others snatch souvenirs, including bricks from a pile that the man of the house, Scott Peterson, intended for a remodeling project. A few have even hopped the fence to take a dip in Peterson’s still well-maintained pool. “I told them to get off the lawn,” says Medina of a camera crew she recently tried to shoo away. “But they told me to mind my own business.”

These days the Peterson lawn is hardly the only ground being trampled. As they jockey for the legal upper hand, the contending sides appear to be taking turns leaking or countering one lurid allegation after another for broadcast, refutation and public mastication. Adding to the spectacle, on May 30 Laci Peterson’s relatives stormed into the house and carted off several pieces of furniture and bags of personal items (see box, page 98). Then prosecutors revealed on June 3 that the police had—for a second time—questioned the occupants of a brown van Scott Peterson’s lawyers had alleged might have been involved in the crime—and found nothing amiss. Concluded D.A. James Brazelton: “This van was not in any way involved in the disappearance of Laci Peterson.”

That didn’t clear up the matter of the autopsy reports on Laci and son Conner, officially under seal. On May 30 ABC announced that the reports confirmed that when Laci’s body was found April 14 on the shore of San Francisco Bay, her head and all or parts of her limbs were missing from her torso, which was badly decomposed. According to ABC (following up on a preliminary report broadcast on MSNBC), though, the skin of the baby—found a day earlier—was not decomposed, the right side of his body had a laceration across the shoulders, plastic tape was wrapped around the infant’s neck and the placenta and umbilical cord were nowhere to be found. Laci’s relatives were “devastated,” says Kim Petersen, their spokeswoman. “No family should ever find out the results of autopsy reports on national television.”

At first the leaks appeared to favor theories floated by Scott Peterson’s defense lawyer Mark Geragos that members of a satanic cult were responsible for killing the mother and child. (Geragos has not commented on the leaks.) “No matter what we think of Scott Peterson,” says Stan Goldman of Loyola Law School, “only his worst critics would believe he would actually strangle his baby if he was born at the time that the assault on his wife had taken place.”

But even if the reported details are accurate, there is danger in taking them out of context—which is why outraged prosecutors immediately jumped to have the entire autopsy document unsealed (a judge will hear the motion June 6). For instance, top pathologist Dr. Michael Baden maintains that alleged evidence that has come out so far “doesn’t help either side in particular.” Take the tape, rumored to be a cassette or videotape, reportedly found wrapped around baby Conner’s neck and knotted. Far from indicating that the infant was strangled independently from his mother, “I think it was debris that got caught up on the baby as it was floating in the water,” Baden says. “I heard it didn’t cause any marks on the neck.” Likewise he believes that the reported “very fresh” wound on the baby’s body could have occurred when it washed ashore, possibly hitting rocks. And the alleged dismemberment of Laci? “Done to make it easier to dispose of the body without being seen.”

Baden, however, is quick to caution that the “police should have a lot more information that we don’t know about.” Much of that may not come out until trial, not likely to begin until October at the earliest. Undoubtedly there will be a few more leaks before then—as well as plenty of traffic past Susan Medina’s house. Meanwhile, the thing that all the curiosity seekers “seem to be missing” says Jimmy Lee of the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office, which conducted the autopsies, “is that there’s a family involved in this.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Ron Arias in Modesto and Johnny Dodd and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles

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