Peterson on Trial | NEWS: Peterson on Trial | Indy Week
Pin It

Peterson on Trial 

The million-dollar defense

We now begin to hear the deep rumble of what a million bucks worth of lawyering sounds like. Man, a million dollars in three or so weeks. Eleven grand an hour. Even with overhead, that makes both Brad Wolgamott and Dr. Jan Leestma look like five-dollar lot-lizards. Until now, defense has just been sending up flak. Now the pounding starts and the numbers are racing by like the national debt clock in New York City.

OK. We knew what Brad was, but Dr. Jan Leestma. Um-um-um. I understand he's dedicated--5,000 brains and all; the Traci Lords of forensic neuropathologists. But honestly, conducting an autopsy... on vacation? I can see Leestma getting that purr on the 14th hole. "Yeah? Sure. Be right over." He's like a guy who showed up in a big diesel Dodge 3500 pickup, fishing rods and Michigan tags, while I was pulling a Firebird from a sinkhole in Florida after the party.

"I'll do it for 20 bucks," smirking at my Fury and my rusty logging chain.

The Fury squatted, the 440 groaning and out popped the 'Bird like a watermelon seed.

"Go on back up north, yuh gol-darn Michitucky knuckle-dragger," my bud hissed.

Sure was a joy watching the ole plow horse walk 'im dry. Leestma started off all tall and confident. When Hardin really leaned on him, Leestma started shrinking. Literally. He got smaller, developed this hooding of the eyes and his forehead got all scrunched up. The court reporter even had to ask him to speak up.

After Leestma got through explaining how you never got homicide from scalp lacerations without fracture and brain hemorrhages, and that lacerations with a lack of brain hemorrhages and fracture were consistent with a fall, Hardin gut-punched Leestma with five cases of the former, then clobbered him with his own textbook contradicting the latter--very like his opinion that shaken-to-death baby Matthew's symptoms were not consistent with shaking in Massachusetts v. Woodward. (

By the time Hardin got through with him, all you saw was the shock of white hair, and he ended up looking like a cross between a kid in the cookie jar and the California raisin with bifocals. Hey Jan, you can't waltz through life on a good courtroom manner. Well yeah, I guess you can--David Lee Roth said that money can't buy happiness, but you could buy a yacht and pull up next to it. Now take your check and don't let the door spank ya in the ass, ya puke.

Major Tim Palmbach, Connecticut State Police, made up for it. A cop's cop and all around straight-up dude. Really let the Durham cops have it, like they need--but was fair, giving the state its due, saying, for instance, that SBI blood pattern analyst Duane Deaver's experiments weren't so much wrong, just scientifically incomplete: creating results instead of letting the result happen through exhaustive experimentation.

I had to get to the bottom of this expert witness business. I dropped a dime to a very busy Roger Smith who graciously spared 10 minutes.

To sum it up, the adjudication process emerges from the dialectic--a touchstone of Western philosophy. Smith uttered "thesis," and I yipped, "George Frederick Hegel." (

Stripped down, the prosecution musters and organizes all the evidence and all the state's expert's testimony to try as best as it can to support and prove their thesis.

The defense responds in kind. They need expert testimony as well, so they make a call to qualified experts. The experts examine the defense's thesis and decide whether or not they can support it. If they can, they sign on (paid handsomely) to undermine the thesis via the antithesis.

It is the jury's job to absorb and digest all of both sides' evidence and decide which is most likely the case. They are the agents of the synthesis--the resolution of two contrary ideas.

Seven minutes later I walked out of the old Durham Courthouse's basement, the sun shining brighter than it had in a while. Now I was getting to where I could wrap my brain around this thing I thought I knew something about. I mean, I know what handcuffs feel like, but this is like top-fuel drag racing or cutting diamonds. There are no dress rehearsals. These are professionals. This is the big time.

Once more that blow poke.

I needed my own expert opinion so I went calling on an old friend with a greasy, ugly Harley and as much personal knowledge about kicking ass as anyone I know. After threatening me with an ax about "that Durham County cluster-fuck," I calmed him down and we had a pleasant little chat. I described the weapon. He got this far-away look.

"One night I grabbed the wrong end of a pool cue."

"Whad'ya do?"

"Cracked him over the head. Bad. Blood-blinded 'em. Couldn't see."

"How'd the stick do?"

"Tip broke."

Of course. Classic pool-room move. The assailant held the blow-poke by the dirty end and swung the fat end, the big end, with the disc-shaped mouthpiece.

My forensic pathologist Deep Throat has described how a weapon acts on a noggin. I've finally settled on a commonly found descriptive model, a damaged golf ball duffers call "smileys." When the straight edge of a club cuts the plastic sheath of a golf ball, when the perpendicular cutting blow moves away from the center line, looking from a side angle you see a curve. When you observe the cut in the direction of the blow, you see a straight line--what is known in navigation as a "great circle"--a slice.

Next day in court, I studied the two head diagrams--Liz's and Kathleen's. I'd pored and pondered and puzzled over the autopsies and some of the photos. Now it was time to look, finally, at Liz. Assistant Prosecutor Freda Black handed me the envelope. I held my breath--and slid the picture out.

My brain bubbled for a second. One can look at things as bad or good. It was beautiful, an old faded picture, a greeting card from a trunk in the attic. A really stellar example of the mortuary arts, yellowed, but almost unchanged from 18 years ago.

What we see are smileys, like the smaller two inch-plus cuts at the base of Kathleen's skull that tell a lot about the characteristics of the weapons and the force of the blow.

That was my answer. Our assailant did things that were the opposite of the prosecution's contentions, like someone backing through their tracks in the snow. Any soot was on the assailant's hands from smacking her with the "wrong" end of the blow poke.

The blow poke was in the pictures up to a certain date--and then it was gone. No one steals fireplace tools. Then I remembered that we have an 11,000-square-foot scene built in 1940--with a bunch of fireplaces. If you are going to do somebody in a stairwell, why not, instead of having a bleeding body fall on you, let gravity do some of the work--and finish her off at the bottom of the stairs?

Both the attack and the blow poke started upstairs. And the tool that killed both Liz and Kathleen, light, whippy and strong, had the same characteristically circular end that produces these small "smileys." At one point the assailant got sloppy with Kathleen--and the larger lacerations show it. EndBlock

Peter Eichenberger can be reached at

Latest in NEWS: Peterson on Trial

More by Peter Eichenberger


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

INDY Week publishes all kinds of comments, but we don't publish everything.

  • Comments that are not contributing to the conversation will be removed.
  • Comments that include ad hominem attacks will also be removed.
  • Please do not copy and paste the full text of a press release.

Permitted HTML:
  • To create paragraphs in your comment, type <p> at the start of a paragraph and </p> at the end of each paragraph.
  • To create bold text, type <b>bolded text</b> (please note the closing tag, </b>).
  • To create italicized text, type <i>italicized text</i> (please note the closing tag, </i>).
  • Proper web addresses will automatically become links.

Latest in NEWS: Peterson on Trial

Twitter Activity


Most Read

No recently-read stories.

Visit the archives…

© 2018 Indy Week • 320 E. Chapel Hill St., Suite 200, Durham, NC 27701 • phone 919-286-1972 • fax 919-286-4274
RSS Feeds | Powered by Foundation