The murder trial of former California Highway Patrol Officer Craig Peyer took surprising turn Friday when a pathologist suddenly produced autopsy notes never seen before, notes that could bear on Cara Knott's time of death.
While questioned by defense attorney Robert Grimes, Lee Bockhacker, who performed the autopsy on Cara Knott, testified that he had taken a liver temperature about 90 minutes before starting the medical examination on Dec. 28, 1986.
Bockhacker's comment stunned Grimes, who reminded Bockhacker that he had testified at the preliminary hearing in April that he had not taken a liver temperature. Liver temperatures are sometimes used to establish the time of death, and Grimes had criticized the San Diego County coroner's office for not including a liver temperature in the autopsy report.
Peyer, a 13-year CHP veteran is charged with killing Knott, 20, on Dec. 27, 1986. Police said she was strangled on the Old U.S. 395 bridge near Interstate 15 and the Mercy Road off-ramp between 9 and 10 p.m. Her body was thrown 65 feet into a dry creek bed, where it was discovered by police the following morning.
In his opening statement and in his questioning of Bockhacker, Grimes suggested that Knott, a San Diego State University student, was actually killed by two people after Peyer's shift ended at 10:30 p.m.
On Friday, Bockhacker mentioned that he had taken a liver temperature that recorded 64 degrees at 1 p.m. on Dec. 28, 1986, 16 or 17 hours after Knott was reported killed. At best, the 64-degree temperature reading indicates Knott was killed within 25 hours from the time the reading was taken at 1 p.m., Bockhacker said.
Bockhacker claimed that he remembered the temperature reading when he discovered the missing notes in May, about one month after testifying at the preliminary hearing.
He added that he did not think the discovery significant and decided to wait until testifying at the trial before announcing his finding.
However, Bockhacker said that the notes were not in his handwriting and guessed that he had dictated the temperature reading to an unknown assistant while performing the autopsy.
At the preliminary hearing Grimes had pressed the issue, and during the trial he has questioned several witnesses about why a liver temperature was not taken when Knott's body was discovered on the morning of Dec. 28, 1986.
During the preliminary hearing, Bockhacker said that a black circle drawn on Knott's abdomen at the time of the autopsy indicated that a liver temperature had been taken. But Bockhacker testified at the time that he did not know who took the temperature. On Friday, he said that he was still uncertain whether he or somebody else at the coroner's office had taken the temperature reading.
"I just did not recall having taken the temperature," said Bockhacker, who added that he has performed more than 2,000 autopsies. He went on to say that he "didn't frequently take liver temperatures . . . but it was done in this case."
Discovery Order Violation?
After the noon recess, Grimes complained to Superior Court Judge Richard Huffman that Bockhacker had informed Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Van Orshoven about the newly discovered notes before Friday's morning court session. Grimes argued that Van Orshoven was obligated to share the new information with the defense.
"I'm quite concerned that there might be a violation of (the court's) discovery order," Grimes had said before both sides recessed for lunch, after he first learned of Bockhacker's newly discovered notes.
Huffman disagreed, and when both sides resumed the issue after the noon recess, he said:
"I have no basis to find it's a violation of the discovery order by the district attorney. But it's certainly not what was intended by the discovery order . . . I think the (prosecutors) were as much surprised by this turn of events as the defense," Huffman said.
The significance of a liver temperature reading is debatable. Experts agree that the liver loses heat slower than the rest of the body, but a reliable temperature reading is affected by several factors, such as whether the victim is clothed or not, air temperature, humidity, wind and whether death occurs outdoors or inside.
"The only accurate way of fixing the time of death is from an eyewitness," said Bockhacker.
Barring that, the next best method to estimate time of death is by analyzing the amount of settling of vitreous fluid in the eye. But even this test indicated that Knott was killed as little as 6 hours before the test was performed at 1:25 p.m. on Dec. 28, 1986, or as many as 26 hours before the test was administered, Bockhacker said.
Bockhacker also testified that a 48-inch rope recovered from the trunk of Peyer's CHP cruiser by San Diego police matches the ligature marks found on Knott's neck. The rope is about three-eighths of an inch in diameter, about the same width as the marks. But he emphasized that he was not saying that the rope found in the trunk was the murder weapon.