Scott Peterson's defense lawyer attacks key prosecution evidence as tainted

Wednesday, July 21st 2004, 6:08 am
By: News On 6

REDWOOD CITY, Calif. (AP) _ Scott Peterson's defense lawyer questioned a witness so fervently about the prosecution's key piece of physical evidence in his murder trial that the judge ordered jurors to leave the courtroom.

During cross-examination of a criminalist, Mark Geragos suggested police botched the collection process, possibility even contaminating the evidence _ a single strand of hair from Peterson's pregnant wife, Laci.

Detectives have testified they collected the strand from a pair of pliers found on Peterson's boat, which prosecutors allege the former fertilizer salesman used to ferry Laci Peterson's body out onto San Francisco Bay. When prosecutors opened an evidence envelope several months later, however, two hairs were present.

The criminalist, Rodney Oswalt, testified Thursday that the hairs were likely two strands _ not, as the prosecution had suggested during a preliminary hearing, a single hair that had broken in two.

Jurors were removed after Oswalt, who works for the California Department of Justice, gave his supposition about two strands. Geragos then asked the judge to allow him to tell jurors the prosecution's theory ``changes as it blows in the wind.''

``If he's going to testify that there were two hairs then that raises the specter once again there was a break in the chain of custody,'' Geragos argued. ``I think the jury should be privy to the fact that it was the DA's contention at the preliminary hearing that this hair broke in half.''

The judge would not allow it, but said Geragos could question Oswalt about the hairs.

``Did you ever tell the DA that it was one hair that broke in half?'' Geragos asked Oswalt.

``Did I tell them? No,'' Oswalt replied.

Earlier, Oswalt testified the two strands ``could have'' come from Laci Peterson. He also described the condition of the fragments, telling prosecutors the hair ``appeared to be broken or torn at the end,'' adding ``it wasn't cleanly cut off.''

``It looked as though it had been torn or crudely sheared,'' he said.

Oswalt said he also tested eight hairs collected from a piece of duct tape found on Laci Peterson's body and four hairs gathered from her skin. Ten of the hairs turned out to be animal, he said.

The remaining two ``could have been donated by the victim,'' but did not come from Scott Peterson, Oswalt said.

Under questioning from Geragos, Oswalt agreed hair is often transferred from one spouse to another _ meaning that hair belonging to Laci Peterson could have fallen from her husband onto the boat.

Trial watchers speculated that the value of the hair to the state's case has been undermined by questions surrounding the collection process and the transfer theory raised by the defense.

``It's important because it's their only physical link to putting Laci on the boat,'' said Robert Talbot, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law. ``But it doesn't look too significant now.''

Prosecutors allege Peterson killed his pregnant wife in their Modesto home on or around Dec. 24, 2002, then drove her body to the bay and dumped her overboard.

Laci Peterson's remains and that of the couple's fetus washed ashore last year near where Peterson claims he was fishing on Christmas Eve 2002.