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Medical examiner explains about-face on cause of death

By John Springer

Defense attorney David Rudolf, unseen, refers to a forensic pathology manual while questioning Kenneth Snell, the medical examiner of Durham and Orange counties.
Defense attorney David Rudolf, unseen, refers to a forensic pathology manual while questioning Kenneth Snell, the medical examiner of Durham and Orange counties.

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DURHAM, North Carolina (Court TV) -- The medical examiner who initially concluded that Kathleen Peterson probably died from falling down stairs testified Wednesday that he reached a very different opinion after getting a closeup look at her wounds at the morgue.

Dr. Kenneth Snell, a key prosecution witness at novelist Michael Peterson's murder trial, told jurors that the seven wounds he observed while watching other forensic pathologists perform the autopsy were a major reason he changed his initial finding of "accident" to  homicide from a beating.

Police never found a weapon, but investigators became suspicious of Kathleen Peterson's December 9, 2001, death because of the amount and location of blood. Although a blood spatter expert is expected to testify later that blood stains suggest a weapon was used, Snell said a police evidence technician with some blood spatter analysis training told him on the morning after the death that Kathleen Peterson may have hit her head on stairs at least twice.

Snell testified that he saw two distinct lacerations that formed an avulsion, or tearing, of Kathleen Peterson's scalp. Because her hair was matted with blood, Snell decided an autopsy was necessary and advised police to begin looking for a crowbar or fireplace poker.

"Since I couldn't see the rest of the back of the head, I informed the detectives they should look for some sort of instrument that could have created these lacerations should there be more lacerations once the rest of the back of the head could be examined," Snell said.

Anticipating future questions from the defense, prosecutor Jim Hardin Jr. asked Snell why he changed his mind about the death being an accident. Snell explained that he indicated a probable cause of death without the benefit of the autopsy.

"Any of this information may not be correct. It is quite routine that information in this report gets changed in some fashion," Snell said, referring to information in his field report. "I filled it out before the autopsy had even begun."

"Is that your practice?" Hardin asked.

Michael Peterson
Michael Peterson

"Not currently," Snell said. "I feel now that it's better to wait until I have at least the preliminary autopsy findings."

On cross-examination, defense lawyer David Rudolf wasted no time exploring the reasons Snell no longer fills out his field report right away. Snell said he didn't want to create problems for law enforcement.

"When you say problems it causes law enforcement, this was an honest opinion you gave at the time, wasn't it?" Rudolf said, referring to the initial finding.

Snell said yes.

"It was what you believed at the time?" Rudolf pressed.

Snell replied, "Yes, sir."

Rudolf's cross-examination of Snell, the prosecution's strongest witness so far, was brief and not nearly as confrontational as exchanges with other witnesses who inflicted damage on his client.

Rudolf asked Snell a series of questions outside the presence of the jury but then did not ask many of them when the jury returned. During that questioning, Snell said he believed even more strongly that Kathleen Peterson was beaten after reading a textbook recommended to him by Rudolf at an out-of-court meeting late last week. The book was written by Dr. Werner Spitz, a pre-eminent forensic pathologist who will testify for the defense.

The defense did bring out, however, that even after watching the autopsy Snell told two police officers that there were four main injuries. The prosecution has maintained that there were seven distinct lacerations. The higher the number of lacerations, the less likely the jury is to believe Kathleen Peterson died from a fall.

Jurors also heard testimony Wednesday from William Haggard, a forensic meteorologist who analyzed weather conditions on the night Kathleen Peterson died. The prosecution contends that Michael Peterson lied when he claimed he was out smoking alone for 30 to 45 minutes, and that Kathleen Peterson fell and bled to death during that time.

Using weather data, Haggard testified that it was 51 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit during the early morning of December 9, 2001. The "comfort zone" for a typical person would be between 66 degrees and 72 degrees. Michael Peterson was wearing a T-shirt and shorts. His wife was wearing a sweat suit.

The defense seemed to mock the testimony of Haggard, whose company is billing the prosecution $160 per hour. Haggard conceded he was not familiar with the underlying studies that established the so-called comfort zone and did not interview other people at the house to determine whether they felt comfortable.

Noting that Haggard relied on readings from an airport 30 miles from the Peterson home, defense lawyer Thomas Maher tried to poke holes in the well-credentialed witness's conclusions.

"There isn't a weather station at Michael Peterson's house, is there?" Maher asked.

On Thursday, Judge Orlando Hudson Jr. will hold a hearing on the admissibility of computer images and e-mails seized from the Peterson home. Although lawyers have not specified the content of the evidence, court papers refer to pornography.

During his opening statement July 1, Hardin told jurors there was evidence that someone reformatted Michael Peterson's hard drive after the death and reinstalled select files. Hardin told Hudson that he intends to call three computer experts to testify, depending on how the judge rules on the admissibility question.

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