By Bill Hewitt
November 10, 2003 12:00 PM

After 27 weeks in jail, Scott Peterson has lost a good deal of weight but seemingly none of his confidence. On Oct. 24 he sauntered into his pretrial hearing in the Modesto, Calif., courtroom and mouthed hello to his half-brother John in the gallery. Oct. 24 also happened to be Scott’s 31st birthday, which his sister-in-law Janey Peterson says that the family quietly celebrated. “We did try to do something so that he would know that he’s not in this alone,” she says.

The next day the family of Laci Peterson observed a memorial on her behalf outside of Oakdale. Her mother, Sharon Rocha, and 400 others, most of whom never knew Laci. then took part in an impromptu vigil at the unmarked grave of Laci and her son Conner. Peterson’s preliminary hearing—the first glimpse of the evidence the prosecution has against him—is set to begin Oct. 29, and Rocha plans to attend each day of the proceeding, which is all but certain to lead to a full trial next year. It promises to be a brutal week, but as Laci’s cousin Shawn Rocha says, “I’m guessing they’ve forgotten what normal is.”

JUST ONE HAIR

One of the sharpest battles at the prelim is likely to be over a strand of hair, purportedly Laci’s, which was found on a pair of needle-nose pliers on Scott’s boat. Problem is, experts say the hair sample likely contains only the shaft, not the root, so scientists cannot use it for traditional DNA testing. Instead they have had to rely on a less definitive technique called mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Judge Al Girolami will decide whether the mtDNA evidence will be excluded, as the defense wants. The hair is also broken in two, which has led attorney Mark Geragos to argue that the sample was mishandled by police. In any case, independent forensic scientist Brent Turvey downplays its ultimate importance. “If they could have DNA from the root that matched perfectly to Laci Peterson it wouldn’t mean a damn thing,” he argues. “That’s just proof of her daily activities.”

FOCUS ON AMBER

Prior to the preliminary hearing, prosecutors were keeping mum about whom they intended to call as witnesses. It’s a good bet, though, that Amber Frey, 28, the Fresno massage therapist with whom Scott was having an affair, will be on hand. In August Fox News reported that a tape of a telephone conversation between Scott and Amber existed in which she purportedly asked him if he was involved in Laci’s disappearance, and he replied, “Yes…ah, ah…but no. But I know who did, and I’ll tell you later when I see you.” While the existence of the tape has never been confirmed, it has also never been debunked. If true, it would be a bombshell, since Peterson’s initial response could indicate his knowledge or involvement in the crime. “If that is played for the jury, it could be very damning,” says Stan Goldman, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “That would take a lot of explaining for the defense.”

CALLING IN THE DOGS

One of the prosecution’s star witnesses may never utter a word. On December 27 investigators brought in a “cadaver dog” named Twist to inspect Scott Peterson’s boat and the warehouse in which he stored it. Cadaver dogs are trained to detect the odor of decomposing bodies. During his tour of the premises Twist showed “mild interest” when positioned in the boat and some “interest” when allowed to sniff around some containers in the front of the warehouse, according to an excerpt from the handler’s report. The defense pounced on the fact that Twist did not display “full alert,” while the prosecution has maintained that the dog detected something but was confused by the heavy chemical smells in the warehouse, which held supplies for Peterson’s fertilizer business.

But some experts point out that because investigators apparently found no physical evidence that Laci’s body had been at the warehouse or on the boat, the cadaver dog’s response doesn’t amount to much. “It falls upon scientific forensic tests to be conducted on the areas the dogs hit to determine whether or not human remains are actually there,” says independent forensic scientist Brent Turvey. “It is because nothing is there that prosecutors are putting on the dogs and the dog handlers. That to me is a little scary.” Ultimately, Judge Al Girolami decided that Twist’s evidence would be allowed. But at a later trial it will be up to a jury to figure out how much weight it should be given.

SECRETLY TRACKING SCOTT

In January, soon after Laci’s Christmas time disappearance, Modesto police surreptitiously installed Global Positioning System tracking devices on Scott Peterson’s vehicles and those he borrowed from his family; surveillance continued till his arrest in April. The prosecution had signaled its intent to use the GPS data at Peterson’s preliminary hearing but backed off when the defense objected. Even so, Stanislaus County Deputy DA Rick Distaso has said he may still use the information at a full trial. The possible significance? If Peterson did nothing but run routine errands, the defense will try to get some mileage out of that. But if he was visiting strip clubs, to take one hypothetical example, rather than mourning his missing wife, that may help the prosecution, who clearly intend to make his character a key issue.

BILL HEWITT; Vickie Bane in Modesto, Johnny Dodd and Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles

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