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Details Leaked of Peterson Baby's Autopsy

Aired May 29, 2003 - 19:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, HOST: But first, we begin with gruesome new details and a dramatic development in the Laci Peterson case.
Portions of the coroner's report on Peterson's unborn son, Connor, are now leaking out. Autopsy reports have been under wraps, but now the district attorney says they should be unsealed. We're going to focus a lot on this in the next several minutes.

CNN's David Mattingly joins us now from Modesto, California, with the latest -- David.

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, just two days ago attorneys for Scott Peterson's defense team and the prosecutors were in an unusual agreement that the autopsies of Laci Peterson and her unborn son Connor, should stay out of the public eye and should remain sealed by the court.

Well, today leaks of that report are changing the position of prosecutors.

First of all, what has been leaked out? A source close to the investigation has provided this to CNN. These are what has been represented to us as verbatim quotes from the autopsy report as related to the baby, Connor.

It reads, "One and a half loops of plastic tape are around the neck of the fetus with an extension to a knot near the left shoulder... an examination of the chest reveals an apparent postmortem tear exposing the internal surfaces of the right shoulder and the right hemi-thorax. The wound margins are without evidence of chewing or scalloping."

Now, this report also goes on. According to the source close to the investigation, it reads that the estimated age of the fetus was 33 to 38 weeks, which seems to match about the time of Laci's disappearance.

Now, there has been no public comment today, no reaction, no public statement from either the defense team or the prosecutors.

But just about an hour ago we got this from the D.A.'s office. This was filed, a motion filed in superior court here in this county by the D.A., reversing their position, saying now that the autopsy reports should be made public. And the reason for that, they are arguing that the people of California have the right to correct inaccurate information, suggesting that possibly some of this information that's come out today is not accurate.

The D.A. here argues that by releasing the autopsy reports the court will allow the media to see what the actual facts are and then accurate information may be reported to mitigate recent adverse publicity.

And pretrial publicity has been a tremendous concern in this case. The judge wondering out loud why so much information has been going public instead of coming out in the courtroom. That's when he raised the possibility of maybe ruling that there should be a gag order in this case. He'll make that decision next week.

Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: All right. Now, David, in this report from this source that CNN has gotten, it says that the estimated gestational age, nine months, 33 to 38 weeks, based on anthropological measurements. That does seem to open up some question that the defense might use coming up later on whenever it does actually come to trial, because Laci Peterson was known to have disappeared somewhere in her 33rd week.

MATTINGLY: And I think this is part of why the prosecution wants all of this information now to come out and be made public, because they feel that excerpts like that are leading to speculation that might damage the case, either for the prosecution or possibly even for the defense. So that could be possibly why we're seeing the D.A. now reversing its decision to possibly let these reports go public.

COOPER: David, has the D.A. already filed that or are they going to be doing that tomorrow?

MATTINGLY: That has been filed. This came out just a little over -- a little less than an hour ago. So it has been filed. We'll have to wait and see how the judge is going to rule on this.

We were waiting on the judge to rule on a petition by newspapers here in California to make that report public. At the time the D.A. and the defense team were both against it, and the judge said he was not likely to rule to let this go public. Now that the D.A. has changed its mind and these excerpts have gone public, it would be interesting to see now how the judge decides to rule on this.

COOPER: Well, this thing is moving so fast and furiously, it would be surprising if he didn't rule relatively quickly.

David Mattingly, appreciate you joining us, covering the story tonight from Modesto.

We're going to take a deeper look now into what these developments may mean in the legal aspects. I'm joined here by CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, also by Lisa Bloom, co-anchor of Court TV's program, "Closing Arguments."

Both of you, appreciate you joining us. First let's talk about this time frame, this nine months that we heard. Again let's just reread what the source has told CNN, that the fetus, Connor, having an estimated gestational age nine months, 33 to 38 weeks, based on anthropological measurements.

The significance of that, Jeffrey?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: These are, of course, just estimates. This is not an exact science.

But that said, this certainly gives the defense ammunition to work with in a case.


TOOBIN: Because you could argue based on this data that Laci Peterson disappeared in her eighth month. The fetus died in the ninth month.

COOPER: But I thought it was her 33rd week.

TOOBIN: I think, that's not entirely clear. I mean, after all, we can't know when exactly this, you know, child was conceived. So you know, we're dealing with approximations, and we're also dealing with proof beyond a reasonable doubt standard.

LISA BLOOM, COURT TV: Well, also keep in mind someone who's had two children, that the common length of pregnancy is 40 weeks, which if you calculate it out is really more like ten months. We all think of a pregnancy as nine months, and we say loosely that Laci disappeared in her eighth month.

But as you say, Anderson, she disappeared in her 33rd week. This report has the gestational age of the fetus 33 to 38 weeks. That is consistent with the time of her disappearance.

And keep in mind these are decomposed remains of a fetus that were at sea for many months and so any interpretation of the results is going to be subject to...

COOPER: But that's the interpretation. It's open to doubt, isn't it?

TOOBIN: Interpretation. Doubt. I mean, look, I think you're clearly right. You're certainly right. You're the only who had a baby. That's one I can't top.

But this gives the defense room to argue. I mean, this is about doubt. And with a range like this, it opens the question of whether the fetus -- whether Laci and the fetus were alive after she disappeared. It doesn't guarantee it. It doesn't close the door. But it's something that the defense didn't have yesterday.

BLOOM: And that goes to show that this has to be a defense leak. Who does this leak help? It helps the defense. Whose theory is it consistent with? It's consistent with the defense theories that they've already floated from previous leaks. Their leaks that a satanic cult did it, that a mystery man in a brown van had something to do with it. And who's changed their position as a result of this leak? The prosecution. The prosecution is the one now who says, hey, let's make the whole thing public, not just selected portions.

TOOBIN: You're certainly right about that, and you're especially right because of this first part of this leak, the fact that the baby was -- had the plastic looped around its neck. It suggests that there was some intentional effort to harm the baby independent of an effort to harm...

BLOOM: Maybe, maybe not. Keep in mind, that baby was at sea, subject to tides, subject to all kinds of...

COOPER: Well, let's...

BLOOM: Items being at sea that could have wrapped around the baby just...

COOPER: Let's just revisit the details of what the source has told CNN, according to the autopsy report. That one and a half -- We'll put it on the screen, too, for you.

"One and a half loops of plastic tape are around the neck of the fetus with an extension to a knot near the left shoulder... an examination of the chest reveals an apparent postmortem tear exposing the internal surfaces of the right shoulder and the right hemi-thorax. The wound margins are without evidence of chewing or scalloping."

I mean, it's disgustingly gruesome, it is gory, but this is out there.

TOOBIN: But the tear, I think, is not terribly significant. I mean, this body, alas, was in the ocean for a long time. There is going to be some postmortem injury after the baby died.

But after -- but as for the wrapping around the throat a time and a half, I mean, that certainly suggests a person did that. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean Scott Peterson didn't do it.

BLOOM: What else it suggests is that coffin birth, which is a theory we've all been operating under, that the baby was born after Laci's death, born spontaneously as a result of a medical phenomenon called coffin death...

COOPER: Which is what many of the forensic pathologists -- In the early days many of the forensic pathologists were saying that is very well what might have happened, gases might have brought the baby out.

BLOOM: But if it is proven that someone intentionally tied plastic tape around the neck of that fetus, then surely the fetus was out of the mother's body before it was killed.

TOOBIN: That's right. Now, that doesn't necessarily implicate Scott Peterson, it doesn't exculpate him.

BLOOM: I don't know.

TOOBIN: I don't know. I mean, it's so horrible to even think about whether he is more likely or less likely to have done it that way, but I mean, it is a new complication for suggesting what the cause of death for both people is.

BLOOM: It certainly gives forensic experts a lot to work with, and that's going to be the core of this case. That tape is going to be pored over by forensic experts for both sides. We know already that fluidity (ph) experts, that is people who are experts in the floods and the tides of the ocean have already been retained by the prosecution, have already been looking at the bodies as they washed up. There are going to be a lot of experts in this case, and it's all going to come down to the forensics.

COOPER: We're going to talk to a forensic pathologist a little later in the program.

Just very briefly, it's moving by the D.A. to get this thing unsealed, to get the information out there. When do you think the judge is going to rule?

TOOBIN: I would imagine pretty soon. And I don't know what he's going to do, do you? I think it's a very tough call for the judge. It was easy for the judge when both sides were in agreement, but here the judge clearly is hostile to public release of documents. He wants things kept under wraps to the extent possible.

But here you have the prosecution sort of calling the defense's bluff, saying you think this helps you, let's put it all out there and let's see what people...

BLOOM: It's all going to come out by the July 16th preliminary hearing. Next week there's two hearings on June 3 and June 6. I would expect this matter to be taken up by the judge next week, and maybe he'll say, look, we can't just have a selective release of information, let's release all of it.

COOPER: But bottom line at this hour tonight the defense has got to be somewhat happy, I suppose.

TOOBIN: I think this information helps the defense. We are a long way -- you know, this isn't the stock market. It doesn't go up and down. But this information is more helpful to the defense than the information that was public yesterday.

BLOOM: But if the defense leaked this information, we've got a defense team that's giving selective information to the press while at the same time standing up in open court and saying all information should be sealed, don't let any of the facts out. That's going to catch up with them if that's what's going on.

COOPER: All right. Lisa Bloom, Jeff Toobin, appreciate it, thank you.

Well, these new autopsy revelations are prompting a lot of new questions. What could it all mean? We're going to take a closer look with a forensic pathologist as I mentioned, in the next hour on CNN's LIVE FROM THE HEADLINES.


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