Exonerating evidence from Laci's autopsy

Laci's autopsy produced exonerating evidence.  Some of Laci's injuries or bodily conditions simply cannot be explained by the State's theory that Scott strangled or suffocated Laci, leaving absolutely no forensic evidence, on the night of the 23rd or morning of the 24th, and then dumped her pregnant body in the Bay during his fishing trip on the 24th.  The autopsy and examination by the forensic anthropologist identified both perimortem and postmortem injuries. 

Two fractured ribs (Perimortem)

Punctured scapula (postmortem)

Frayed 9th rib & frayed fundus (postmortem)

Missing Neck (postmortem)

Two fractured ribs

Laci's autopsy revealed fractured ribs that Dr. Galloway described as perimortem injuries, which could have occured anytime between before death when no healing was taking place till after death when the bones had lost their resiliency. 

We also found two what we call perimortem defects. One of these was on the left fifth rib. One is on the left sixth rib. The lower one had been cut out already by the -- during the autopsy, so that was removed. We have the second one just above that.  These are perimortem, because of the nature of the fracture.  They are clean fractures. However, I have to explain that perimortem, to a forensic anthropologist, is a relatively long period of time.  It includes the time prior to the person's death, when we don't see any healing. And skeletal healing will take a couple weeks to show up on the bone. So for that period before the person dies, we would still see it as a perimortem injury. To make it even a little bit more difficult for us, the postmortem period only sets in when the bones lose their resiliency, so they don't bend as well. And so that can take some period of time after the person has died. All of that period between when -- before you start healing, and to that when the bone loses its resiliency, all, to us, is a perimortem period.  Galloway

No one reported any injuries for Laci prior to her disappearance.  On the 23rd she saw her OB/GYN in the afternoon, her sister Amy at Salon Salon early that evening, and then visited with her mother on the phone at 8:30.  So the logical conclusion is that they occurred during the process of her abduction or murder, or during the disposal of her body.

This chart shows the location of the rib fractures.

Dr. Peterson's description

In the Preliminary hearing, Dr. Peterson described the location of the rib fractures, our emphasis added.

Q.  Now, if I could move over -- I was asking you before, and I didn't have the pictures handy, so I'll jump back to where I was before the break. The multiple rib fractures, your -- your ability to determine from the rib fractures what had -- whether they were antemortem, postmortem, perimortem was limited; is that a fair statement? 

A.  Yes. 

Q.  Can you describe the rib fracture, what you've referred to in shorthand as "left 5"? 

A.  I'm referring to my report now. 

Q.  Yes. 

A.  And the sentence at the end of the second to the last paragraph simply reads, "There are lateral fractures of left ribs 5 and 6." 

Q.  Okay.  Did you -- were you able to -- when you say "lateral," what do you mean by that? 

A.  Some were within the line of the armpit is what I call lateral.  The front of the armpit is called the anterior axillary line.  The back of the armpit's posterior, and anywhere between those two lines is lateral. 

Q.  Okay.  Was there a way for you to determine whether or not the fracture appeared to be from one side to another, for instance?  Was the -- where did you observe the fracture on the rib? 

A.  I'm not quite sure if I understand your question. 

Q.  Was there -- you said under the armpit, and I'm asking you if you can get more specific. 

A.  No. 

Q.  You can't? 

A.  (Negative headshake.) 

Q.  How about to 6?  Same? 

A.  Same thing.  Same sentence. 


Q. Okay. Now, Dr. Galloway has the left fifth rib fractured approximately six centimeters from the vertebral end. Do you remember reading that?
A. Yeah, I see that.
Q. She also had that consistent with an in-bending force. What does that mean?
A. I believe when she -- well, again, you'd have to ask her. When I read, to my eye, "in-bending" means pressure from the outside pushing in.
Q. And she says that she characterized that as a transverse fracture. Do you know what that is?
A. Sure. It's fracture from one edge to the other.
Q. Okay. The left sixth rib is fractured approximately ten centimeters from the vertebral end; is that correct?
A. That's what she says.
Q. Okay. Also -- that also is consistent with what she describes, Dr. Galloway describes as an in-bending force; is that right?
A. That's what she says.

Transverse fracture:  A fracture that occurs at right angles to the long axis of a bone, essentially running straight across the bone. A sudden strong stretching force on the bone or a direct impact is often the cause. (source)

In-bending force:  When a bone suffers severe angulation, such as sudden bending, the bone is subjected to tension stress on the convex side and compressive stress on the concave side. Transverse fractures are a likely result.

Dr. Ablow's theory

No explanation was offered at trial, either by the Prosecution or the Defense, to explain Laci's fractured ribs.  Indeed, the State prosecuted Scott Peterson on the "soft kill" theory -- that Scott suffocated or strangled Laci, and that is why no bodily fluids or other trace evidence was found.  A soft kill would not have fractured two ribs.  However, Dr. Ablow offered this theory of how Scott murdered Laci and caused the rib fractures: 

As a forensic psychiatrist, I think the pieces of the puzzle fit together best this way.  There is, of course, no way to definitively prove my theory: 

Water, of course, is powerfully connected to themes of both birth and death.

Thatís a guess Ė my best guess Ė at how the crime took place. 


 He took Laci's body out of the pool and dragged it inside, where he dried it with towels.

On the face of it, Ablow's theory is ridiculous because the temperature in Modesto between 8:30 p.m. on the 23rd and 9:00 a.m. on the 24th never exceeded 38 degrees.  Imagine Laci Peterson ďloungingĒ in the unheated pool in 38 degree weather (or less)!


Moreover, the position of the rib fractures eliminates Ablow's theory.  As you can see from the diagram, these breaks were just below her armpit area.  It seems Laciís arms would have to have been raised over her head in order for Scott, 11 inches taller than Laci, to strike her in the armpit.  Not bent at the elbows, but raised over her head.  What position could Laci have possibly been in while in the pool to enable Scott to strike her in the ribs with such force as to break them?  If the weapon was one similar to a mag flashlight, and the blow to Laciís ribs came from someone sneaking up behind her, then the person who struck her was likely left-handed.  A blow to Laciís left side from behind would not have come from a right-handed person.  A right-handed person would have had to swing in a back-hand type motion.  Completely unnatural.  A blow to Laciís left side from a right handed person, would have had to have come from the front.  Scott Peterson is right-handed.  In order for Scott to strike Laci while she was in the pool, while facing her, he would have had to have gotten into the pool with her.  Are we to believe that Laci, while facing Scott, held her hands over her head and allowed him to strike her with the flashlight? 









Dr. DiMaio's analysis


Dr. Vincent DiMaio, medical examiner for Bexar County, Texas, offered his opinion of how Laci's ribs were fractured on CourtTV Online, July 7, 2004, after examining the autopsy reports, topology reports, and the autopsy photos. Our emphasis added.

Question from jemi: Doctor, were you able to determine a cause of death?
Vincent DiMaio: The exact cause of death cannot be determined because of decomposition. There was evidence that she was beaten. Usually in this case, it's beating and strangulation.

Question from niklin: Welcome Dr DiMaio--you were great on Crier today. How do you think Laci got the two broken ribs again?
Vincent DiMaio: One or more blows to the left side of her chest. It could be due to fists. It's more commonly seen in kicks.

Question from olivia: What evidence did you find that she was beaten?
Court TV Host: Aside from the rib evidence
Vincent DiMaio: That is the only evidence. But it's very hard to break the ribs of a woman in her twenties. They're very elastic, so that signifies...a lot of force.
Question from UbuPearl: Could the rib fractures have been the result of a weight dropping on her chest?
Vincent DiMaio: The fractures were on the side. It's possible but unlikely. It would have to be very, very heavy.

Question from me: Can you tell whether she was beaten before or after death?
Question from mahmoo: Dr. DiMaio, how are you able to determine the ribs were broken pre mortem versus post mortem?
Vincent DiMaio: All you can tell is that the ribs were broken about the time of her death. It could have been prior to her death, during a fight that killed her, or immediately after her death.

Question from Shannon: Doctor, was the only sign of trauma the rib fractures?
Vincent DiMaio: Yes.

Question from shelly: Could the ribs have been broken by putting the body into a trunk or other vehicle?
Vincent DiMaio: In my opinion, no.

DiMaio speculates that Laci was strangled, but does not explain how no bodily fluids would be present if Laci received the rib injuries at the time of death, especially since such force would be required to break the ribs:

Question from massviewer: Were you surprised by the lack of blood in the house or the boat?
Vincent DiMaio: Not if it's a strangulation case, which many domestic killings are.

Beating remains a possibility


However, DiMaio's theory does present a credible possibility.  Laci could have suffered the fractures from a beating.  For example, if she were laying on the ground, being beaten, and had her arms up protecting her head, then she could have been kicked in the side, under the armpit, causing the fractures.  The hits to the head would not be known because she was decapitated. 


Punctured Scapula


Dr. Allison Galloway described the injury to the scapula: 

GALLOWAY: . . . And then on the back of the scapulae, or the shoulder blades, the edges right here, and on this side, there was some fraying up at the top margin on the right side. There was considerable damage all along that margin of the bone, including sort of a punctured area right in here. Those were definitely postmortem. Galloway

This picture shows the scapula.  This injury was on the right side, as was the injury to the 9th rib.  The fractured ribs were on the left side.


David Harris asked Dr. Galloway to expand on the punctured area:

HARRIS: You can resume your seat. Now, your examination of the -- of the remains of Laci Peterson, did you notice any type -- just back up for a second. You were describing for us in -- up there in the perimortem defect, the shoulder bone, indicating there was some type of puncture. Did you associate that with any type injury or activity?

GALLOWAY: It looked very typical for what we see of things like carnivore damage. Dogs. Dogs, coyotes, anything like that would get to it. They tend to crush the bones. They puncture the canine teeth will make puncture holes in the bone. And the shoulder blade is very thin. It's easily broken.  Galloway

Harris attempted to explain the puncture wound as occuring from sea-life scavenging, but Dr. Galloway did not find any other sea-life scavenging on Laci's body, except for a few barnacles.

HARRIS: Did you -- when you look at these bodies, and specifically this one, do you look for any of that type of activity, insect or animal -- sea life, animal life?

GALLOWAY: We look for any kind of damage that we will see to the bone itself. So, yes, anything that would affect the bone we will examine. We typically do expect bodies that have been out for a while, there will be some kind of scavenging on that body.

HARRIS: Did you happen to notice if there was anything adhering to these particular bones?

GALLOWAY: Yes. There was -- on the femur, the thigh bone there is an area that was exposed. And there was a barnacle, couple of barnacles attached to that.

We would expect a great deal of scavenging on a body that was in the Bay for over 3 months.  Especially on the upper torso, as it does not appear to have been protected by any clothing other than a bra. 


The puncture wound and fraying is more logically explained by a single attack by an animal after she was dead. 



Frayed 9th rib & the frayed fundus


We combine our discussion on these two injuries because they may have occurred at the same time.  The fundus is "the large upper end of the uterus" (Medline Plus).  This picture of pregnancy at 28 weeks identifies the fundus.



You will note that in the above picture, the fundus is well above the belly button.  Laci was even further along in her pregnancy than 28 weeks, as she was 32 weeks already on December 23.  Yet, Dr. Peterson noted that all of the flesh and organs above the belly button were absent from Laci's body. 

GERAGOS: Heart is gone, the lungs were gone?

PETERSON: They were.

GERAGOS: Spleen was gone. Kidneys were gone. Liver was gone. There were no internal organs. And the only injury that, you couldn't determine whether it was antemortem or postmortem, was this?

PETERSON: That was the fraying of the end of the rib. I didn't make an assessment. I thought perimortem would be a good term.

GERAGOS: Peri, meaning question mark?

PETERSON: Correct.

GERAGOS: Okay. And when a woman is pregnant, in an advanced stage of pregnancy, the baby is going to be sitting here like where my two fingers are; is that correct?

PETERSON: Well, again, the baby's head is normally down in the pelvis. It's actually right above. And then when the woman is ready to go into labor, the head will settle, depending on the size of the baby, how far up it goes.

GERAGOS: Okay. And the, flesh for lack of a better term, there just was nothing in this area here; is that correct?

PETERSON: Well, be up to, if we assume that about right here where I'm pointing is where the belly button would be. Above there, no flesh.

Laci's uterus only measured 23 cm., according to Dr. Peterson. 

PETERSON: Sure. The uterus, in the first place, from the lowest portion of the uterus where it connects to the vagina, to the uppermost portion, the fundus, measured 23 centimeters.

At Laci's December 23 appointment, however, her uterus measured 33 cm., as shown by the fundal height.  Click to enlarge.

Fundal height, or MacDonald's rule, is a measure of the size of the uterus used to assess fetal growth and development. It is measured from the top of the pubic bone to the top of the uterus in centimeters. It should match the fetus' gestational age in weeks within 1 to 3 cm, e.g., a pregnant woman's uterus at 22 weeks should measure 19 to 25 cm. (Wikipedia)


This means that Laci was missing at least 10 cm (3.9 inches) of her uterus (remember, the uterus is rounded, with much of it extending in front).  This was not addressed with Dr. Peterson.  Rather, Peterson described it simply as the fundus wearing away:

Peterson:  . . . Of note was the fact that it was quite thin, measured two millimeters in thickness at most -- again, I'm back to my report, Your Honor. And the fundus, which is the top part of the uterus, which is what they feel to assess, I guess, gestational age, one of the assessments for gestational age, the uterus at that point was essentially abraded away and torn. (Prelim)

PETERSON: Well, the fact is that her uterus was there at all, which was different compared to every other organ that she had had. So I think based on its location lower in the pelvis and however she acted against things at the bottom, and so forth, it took a while to wear away that part of her abdominal wall to get to the point where the uterus was exposed. It took further time to wear away the top of the uterus, which ultimately caused Conner's release. (Trial)

Dave Harris and Mark Geragos debated, through questions posed to Dr. Peterson, whether the fundus opening was caused by a c-section.  Peterson said that would not be where a "normal" c-section would be done.  Peterson did not see any incision on Laci's stomach because he totally missed the point.  The incision on a 32+week pregnant woman, performed by an amateur, would likely have been at the top of the belly, at the fundus, not below the belly button. 


Peterson did, however, admit that the fundus would be in the area of the 9th rib.   

GERAGOS: And if you make that incision, and it's up high, it's going to be roughly in the area where, that 9th rib is frayed, is it not?

PETERSON: Well, again is that where a Cesarean section would, happen? No, never. But, hypothetically, could you make an, incision in somebody at that level? Sure you could. Of, course, it wasn't a cut mark in the rib. It was frayed.

GERAGOS: Was frayed. And the uterus was long enough that it, looked like the uterus was up around that 9th rib, wasn't it?

PETERSON: Correct.  (Trial)

Above, we used a picture of a 28-week pregnancy in order to show the fundus.  Laci was 32 weeks pregnant on December 23, and with the evidence that Conner lived beyond December 24, she would have been closer to 36 weeks when she died.  In this picture of a 36-week pregnancy, the Xiphoid cartilage is also identified.  The umbilicus shows, but is not labeled.  We've placed by its side a picture of the anterior Thorax, which shows the Xipoid process (same thing as Xiphoid cartilage) in relation to the 9th rib and the umbilicus.  Click pictures to enlage.



Dr. Peterson described the injury to the 9th rib:

PETERSON: The way ribs work, most of the rib is bone. So beginning with the attachment at the backbone, extending around the side, that's all bone. Now, when you get towards the front, and it varies from person-to-person, and with age. But beginning, say, at the nipple line or so, in a younger person, some of the rib is not bone. It's cartilage. Which is a softer, more rubbery material. As people age, that cartilage tends to ossify, that is, turn to bone. But that's a variable finding. So what we're seeing in this case is that that part of right rib number nine, which would have been over here, was frayed. Presumably that would have been where there had been cartilage.

HARRIS: Going to go back through that. You were making a gesture when you said right rib number nine.

PETERSON: I had to switch sides. I started on the wrong right. So right side over here. And rib number nine is a little bit lower. So where that joined the cartilage, I don't think I have cartilage any more. But if I were younger I would have. And that was where the end of the rib was frayed.


PETERSON: That was the fraying of the end of the rib. I didn't make an assessment. I thought perimortem would be a good term.

GERAGOS: Peri, meaning question mark?

PETERSON: Correct.

Dr. Galloway noted that part of Laci's 9th rib was missing, and that the end was frayed, but labeled the injury postmortem.  

GALLOWAY: On the postmortem defects we have a section of the right 9th rib is missing, and the end is very frayed. This is characteristic of a postmortem defect.

The injury to the 9th rib certainly could have occurred during an amateur c-section.  If this is the case, then the c-section was performed after Laci was dead for some period of time, as postmortem injuries occur only after the bones have lost their resiliency.  Laci's death would have caused Conner's death, and Conner remaining in the womb for some time explains his macerated condition. 

PETERSON: Sure. We'll even use the term maceration in a hospital pathology where we're looking at a still birth and a baby that's died in the uterus and then, perhaps, is delivered a day or two or three or more later will undergo the same type changes. Not to the degree that we see in Conner, but maceration-type changes anyway. In a fresher stillborn, those will often involve skin changes, overriding of the skull plates, and, to a certain degree, liquefaction of the organs. So we'll see that in a hospital setting, too, and that's where that term maceration would be used.  (Trial)


The Missing Neck


This is the diagram showing where Laci disarticulated.  According to the experts, the body usually disarticulates in the following order: "Disappearance of body parts followed the general sequence: bones of the hands and wrists, bones of the feet and ankles, and the mandible and cranium. The lower legs, forearms, and upper arms are the next units to separate from the body" (Haglund, WDDisappearance of Soft Tissue and the Disarticulation of Human Remains from Aqueous Environments.  Abstract.) 



Thus, Laci's missing limbs and head are expected. 


To counter arguments that Laci was dismembered intentionally, Dr. Peterson said there were no tool marks, but that didn't prove none had been used.

PETERSON: . . . So as I was looking at the extremities, the arms and the legs, as I mentioned, the forearms were missing. The left lower leg was missing, but the joints were there. So I was able to look at those joints and determine that I could not find any specific marks on the joints that I would call tool marks. So, for example, if a joint were taken apart with a knife or a saw, or some other implement, that will oftentimes leave marks on the bone. There were no such marks.

HARRIS: And what would that indicate?

PETERSON: Well, it could be one of two things. One possibility would be that tools were not used to remove the extremities from this body. And certainly being in a marine environment, and subject to animal feeding and tidal effect, as the body moves around based on the tides and so forth, by itself can remove extremities. The other possibility would be that tools were, in fact, used to remove the extremities, but was simply done in a careful enough way so as not to leave tool marks.

HARRIS: And has it been your experience finding that if somebody was using tools on a body to remove extremities?

PETERSON: Well, I guess when I find tool marks, and I determine based on that that the tools had been used, it's kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, isn't it? But, certainly, it's not exactly easy to remove extremities and not leave marks. So when I see a case like this where there are no tool marks, my assumption would be that tools were not, in fact, used.

To support their theory that Laci disarticulated from being in the Bay for over 3 months, Dr. Peterson explained how it can occur: 

PETERSON: A lot of it has to do with understanding how a body acts in water. And once somebody is in the water and dead, however they get there, because of center of gravity, the arms and legs are heavy, and the body floats face down, with the arms and legs hanging down. Initially, typically the body also sinks. So at this point we have a body with arms and legs hanging down low in the water. Meaning down as far as it can go. In other words, close to the bottom. At that point, due to tidal action, current, et cetera, that body is going to move along the bottom with the arms and legs hanging down, and those parts that are low are subject to being injured by stuff on the bottom: Rocks, debris, ship parts, whatever happens to be down there. So by a combination of decomposition and tidal action alone, even in the absence of animal activity, the parts that are hanging down can be lost, and the parts that do hang down would be just that, the forearms, the lower legs, the head, the neck, and so forth. Now, of course, the other possibility in a marine environment is that animal activity is in involved as well. As I said earlier, that can be large animal activity, larger fish, sharks, et cetera, down to smaller animal activity. And just depends on what's there.

However, Peterson is incorrect about the neck.  Dr. Galloway noted the missing neck in her testimony:

Also missing was the most of the neck. There are six vertebrae in the neck -- or seven vertebrae in the neck. The seventh one was present. And the top six were missing. And then the cranium and the mandible, which are the head and the jaw, were also missing.

Peterson may not have known any better, but this should have been a red flag for Galloway, as it is not common for the neck to disarticulate.  As noted by Haglund, the "less flexible joints such as those of the vertebral column, with their complex interlocking nature and ligamentous bindings," are the last to disarticulate.  In Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains, the authors state:  "Finally, there is disarticulation of the entire skeleton with the exception of the vertebral column" (our emphasis).


The exceptions are the first and second cervical vertebrae:

Comparison with archaeological observation demonstrates that: disarticulation of the first and second cervical vertebrae is observed early in the sequence in both animals (Micozzi 1991) and humans (Masset 1987). This may have as much to do with the weight and shape of the cranium, allowing it to roll or rock, as with the joint.  (Source)

The first and second cervical vertebrae are called the Atlas and the Axis, respectively. 

The first seven vertebrae are called the cervical vertebrae. Located at the top of the spinal column, these bones form a flexible framework for the neck and support the head. The first cervical vertebrae is called the atlas and the second is called the axis. The atlas' shape allows the head to nod "yes" and the axis' shape allows the head to shake "no".  (Source)

On the first two pictures, front and back, the line to Laci indicates where Laci allegedly disarticulated, between the sixth and seventh vertebrae.  This is not what would have occurred had Laci disarticulated in the Bay.  She would have disarticulated at the Atlas or Axis.  The third picture gives a bit better view of where the 7th cervical vertebrae is in relation to the shoulder (the big "bump" C7).  C7 was the only neck vertebrae present.



The State produced no credible evidence to explain disarticulation of the neck contrary to the experts who say that, with the exception of the atlas and axis, the vertebrae column will not disarticulate, or if it does, will do so last in the sequence.  Why Laci's 4th, 5th, and 6th cervical vertebrae were missing is yet to be explained.