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Defense focuses on crime scene integrity

By Matt Bean
Court TV

Maj. Timothy Palmbach testifies on behalf of the defense about crime scene integrity.
Maj. Timothy Palmbach testifies on behalf of the defense about crime scene integrity.

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DURHAM, North Carolina (Court TV) -- No crime scene investigation is perfect, but the one Durham police conducted at the home of Kathleen and Michael Peterson was a study in errors, a forensic expert testified Monday.

"It's always a balance and a struggle," said Maj. Timothy Palmbach, the director of the Connecticut Division of Scientific Services who works with forensic pioneer Henry Lee on the side.

Palmbach, who took the stand earlier in the trial and returned Monday during the defense's case, said the integrity of a crime scene is second only to the duty of emergency responders to save lives -- and even then, EMS personnel should have an eye on preserving the evidence.

After a victim is declared dead, the "priority area" around the body should be protected, Palmbach explained. Evidence should be packaged individually to protect cross-contamination, the scene should be thoroughly documented, and family members shouldn't be allowed to rush to the body, as Michael Peterson and his son did that night.

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The testimony came during prosecutor Jim Hardin Jr.'s cross-examination of Palmbach. Hardin was attempting to show that Durham police and investigators from the state Bureau of Investigation did not bungle the investigation, and any mistakes they did make were not serious.

Prosecutors say Peterson, 59, bludgeoned his wife of five years to death and made the murder look like a stairway fall. Peterson, who could spend life in prison if convicted, says he was out by the pool when she fell.

Palmbach, who said he'd analyzed more than 300 crime scenes with the Connecticut police, admitted that none of them were perfectly maintained. But more should have been done to ensure that Kathleen Peterson's death site was not contaminated.

Free expert testimony

Some of the issues that Palmbach singled out:

• Kathleen Peterson's shoes were not individually packaged, and could have been cross-contaminated.

• Her eyeglasses were not collected for evidence.

• Towels at the scene were not collected.

• Sandals at the scene were not collected.

• More photographs should have been taken of the scene, including close-ups of blood spatter evidence.

Hardin also asked Palmbach about his arrangement with the State of Connecticut, which allows him to work with Henry Lee in the Forensic Research Training Center, analyzing cases for clients and testifying about them, as he has in Peterson's trial.

Most states do not allow such an arrangement, said Palmbach, adding, "It's a shame."

But Palmbach's time is not handsomely rewarded: for now, he's working eight to 10 hours with Lee to get experience, not money. Last year, he said, he was paid only $2,000, and he expects to see no money from his 150 hours of work on Peterson's case.

Cleaning the scene

Also Monday, the Peterson family's occasional housekeeper, Clyde Andrson, testified that he'd never seen the blow poke fireplace tool that prosecutors have suggested as the murder weapon.

On cross-examination, however, Andrson, who started working for the family in 1999 and now holds a job as a cook at a Shoney's restaurant, admitted that there could have been a blow poke there without his knowledge.

Andrson's duties for the family centered on the upkeep of their 10,000 square-foot home in Durham. In addition to mowing the lawn and cleaning inside the house, he testified, he cleaned up part of the scene with a wet sponge under orders from Candace Zamperini, the victim's sister.

Zamperini never mentioned the request during her time on the stand for the prosecution, but did say she'd cleaned blood off a framed print hanging in the hallway, breaking down as she recalled blood running down her forearms in the process.

But the part of the hallway outside the stairwell that Andrson swabbed could have yielded important blood spatter evidence.

It wasn't the only time Andrson's testimony clashed with Zamperini's. Early in the trial, Zamperini said she hadn't seen the furniture by the pool (lending suspicion to Peterson's claim that he was poolside when his wife was killed), but Andrson said it was always there.

The main portion of Peterson's first-degree murder trial is slowly drawing to a close. Court was not held Thursday and Friday of last week due to Hurricane Isabel, and Palmbach and Andrson together spent only about an hour testifying Monday. Defense attorney David Rudolf said he has two potential witnesses for tomorrow pending evidentiary issues, and would likely rest on the trial's 50th day.

A round of rebuttal witnesses could prolong the trial, with prosecutors saying they plan to call five rebuttal witnesses. Rudolf filed a motion Monday morning to limit the scope of the rebuttal line-up, calling some of the witnesses cumulative, and Judge Orlando Hudson Jr. said he will rule on a witness-by-witness basis.

The trial, which is being broadcast live by Court TV, resumes at 9:30 a.m.

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