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D.A. To File Motion to Unseal Peterson Autopsy Reports

Aired May 29, 2003 - 20:01   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Prosecutors now say they will file a motion to unseal the autopsy reports of Laci Peterson and her unborn child. The reason? Well, this move comes after a news leak that a coroner reportedly found the fetus had plastic tape wrapped around its neck and a cut across its chest.
CNN's David Mattingly has been following the story. He joins us live from Modesto, California.

David, what's the latest?

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, Laci Peterson's body and the body of her unborn son, Conner, were discovered in April after they washed ashore off of San Francisco Bay.

Since that time, authorities have been very careful about keeping that information under wraps. The coroner's report has been sealed by the court, and both sides, the defense attorneys for Scott Peterson, and the prosecution in this case, argued that they should remain sealed.

Well, that has changed now because of some leaks to the media of excerpts of that coroner's report. One excerpt coming to CNN from a source close to the investigation. This from the coroner's findings on the body of young Conner. And it reads: "one and a half loops of plastic tape around the neck of the fetus with an extension to a knot near the left shoulder."

This goes on to explains how there is a cut across an apparent postmortem tear, it reads, exposing surfaces of the right shoulder and the right hemi-thorax. It also says that wound margins are without evidence of chewing or scalloping.

Also from this source close to the investigation out of this report, it reads that 33 to 38 weeks -- that's the estimated age of the fetus. And that seems to be consistent with the time that Laci Peterson was first reported missing.

There has been no public comment today from the prosecutor or from the defense team. Again, both of whom had argued to keep this information under wraps. The prosecutor, however, going back on its decision, now wanting this information to become public, arguing in this motion filed in court today that the information should now be made public, citing the argument that the people of California have the right to correct inaccurate information, suggesting that some of the leaks today may not be entirely accurate. The DA here arguing that by allowing the media to see the actual facts, they are then -- the accurate information may be reported to help mitigate what it describes as some of the recent adverse publicity.

Every one here, particularly the judge, very sensitive to all the publicity this case has been getting so far. The judge going so far in court two days ago to suggest a gag order may be necessary. With these newest leaks and all the speculation that has erupted from them, it will be interesting to see what the judge now decides to do -- Anderson.

COOPER: David, such a -- I mean, there's so many things to talk about. It's so fascinating. You have both sides, the prosecution and defense, in court just the other day arguing this information should not be released. These autopsy results should not be released. And then all of a sudden, some body leaks it. So it's a big question about who did that.

Any sense of when the judge may rule on whether or not to release this information?

MATTINGLY: Well, the hearing on this particular motion filed by the DA, that's supposed to be -- that's supposed to be handled on the 6th, next week. And the judge -- we were already waiting on a decision from him, for two days ago of him to decide whether or not to allow the autopsy report and some search warrant information to go public. That had been petitioned by five California newspapers. So we were already waiting on that decision.

The judge had earlier said he is not likely to let that go public. It will be interesting again, Anderson, to see how he reacts to these new leaks and how that might affect his future decisions.

COOPER: All right. David Mattingly, thanks very much, from Modesto tonight.

Well, if these details turn out to be true -- and they are gruesome, no doubt about it, they raise several new questions as to exactly what happened to Laci Peterson and her unborn child, Conner, before they died.

For a closer look at all this, let's bring in forensic pathologist Dr. Werner Spitz in Detroit.

Doctor, thanks for being with us again.

DR. WERNER SPITZ, FORENSIC PATHOLOGIST: It's my pleasure.

COOPER: First want to read, again -- that David Mattingly mentioned it -- but what our source -- what CNN's source has said the autopsy report reveals. Then I want to ask you about it.

What it says -- quote -- "one and a half loops of plastic tape 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 -- 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."

First, let's talk about the tape. What does this mean?

SPITZ: The fact that the tape is around the neck one and a half times suggests to me that this is not a coincidence. It is hard to believe that the tape would draw around the neck more than just rest on the neck. Instead, it would encompass the neck more than once. And I understand that the skin under this tape is supposed to have been preserved, is supposed to have looked differently than the rest of the body. If that is the case, then the tape at one time was definitely tight to avoid the water coming in contact with the skin. And if that is what happened, then that raises the immediate question of whether this child did not die as a result of strangulation by ligature.

COOPER: So you're saying it's, in your opinion, it's virtually impossible that this -- that it's a coincidence this tape, if in fact this is true, that the child was underwater and the tape just happened to wrap itself around the child?

SPITZ: I find that difficult to believe. I mean, I'm sure that it is possible that that would happen. But it is in my view unlikely.

COOPER: Then we hear this -- that an examination of the chest revealed an apparent postmortem tear from the right shoulder to the right hemi-thorax. How can you tell if it is postmortem?

SPITZ: Well, that is a good question, because the water -- even if it was a premortem injury, the water would have leaked out any blood in the wound edges.

First of all, a cut would unlikely leave a lot of blood in the wound edges. And if there is a little bit, or even if there is a lot of blood in the wound edges, the water in which the child was immersed would have leeched it out and you would have tremendous difficulty to determine that this is a postmortem cut.

I'm not suggesting that that means that it is an antemortem cut. But it's certainly premature to say it's a postmortem cut.

COOPER: But, I mean, explanations for postmortem cut would be numerous. Perhaps some thing underwater, a shell, a rock, or a motorboat passing by with a motor.

SPITZ: I think a motorboat is perhaps the most likely. If the mother has cuts in the lower abdomen, chances are that this is one cut that went through the mother and the fetus.

The...

COOPER: And theoretically, a pathologist could compare, if there was a cut in the mother, could compare the length, the severity of that cut and the location, to the fetus, could they not?

SPITZ: Yes, and further, also compare the -- or study the -- any cut that may have been made in the rib cage, either in the mother or the fetus or both -- and in the pelvis.

COOPER: At the very least, this report or this tape around the neck is extraordinarily curious. I mean, when you first heard it, did your eyebrows raise?

SPITZ: The tape in the neck? Of course. The fact that there was a tape on -- around the neck, twisted around a time and a half, plus the fact that if it is correct that the skin underneath was preserved, is enormously important, because it may just point in the direction of the cause of death.

COOPER: All right. Dr. Werner Spitz, appreciate you coming in and giving us your insights. Thank you very much.

SPITZ: You're welcome.

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