Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Point of No Return: The Case of Peter Bergna

Disagreements in the Ranks

The prosecution's first rebuttal witness was Robert H. Turner, a retired professor from the University of Nevada who specialized in mechanical engineering. He was critical of one defense expert's calculation, calling it junk science. He stated that it was so flawed, any student handing it in would have received a D; it was "shot through with mistakes." The truck could not have changed direction so dramatically just from hitting the post. His own calculations affirmed those that Schilling had made.

Michael Schwartz asked him how he could form such an opinion without having examined all the evidence. Turner responded that the mechanics indicated that the truck could not have changed direction as much as the animation indicated. "It's not physically possible," he said, and there were discrepancies in some of the measurements.

During breaks in the trial, state reporters from the AP, the experts "performed additional calculations" to accommodate small discrepancies and came back to report that they would have made no difference to the ultimate interpretation.

But a problem arose among the defense experts. Jon Jacobson had testified that Bergna's truck had not hit the ground first with its right front corner, but a second expert, Lindley Manning, indicated that in discussions, Jacobson had made the opposite claim. Manning, a retired University of Nevada engineering professor, stated that Jacobson's account of the crash was in error. But he also pointed out that the Nevada Highway Patrol had devised a mistaken theory as well. In his opinion, the lead investigator, John Schilling, was "uneducated."

Whether the jury members followed any of this is anyone's guess. It's likely they tried, but it's just as likely they decided that there were too many disagreements among supposed experts to take any of them seriously. How were they to decide who was right?

At any rate, the cases had been made on both sides. In summing it up, Clifton said that Bergna had plotted the killing because he had disliked the fact that Rinette had taken a job that paid half of what she'd been making and took her away for long periods of time. Just prior to her return, Bergna had tried dating other women, as if he knew he'd soon be free. He had also checked out the area where the crash would happen and he had placed two unsealed five-gallon cans of gasoline into the truck before picking up his wife, to ensure the vehicle's destruction when he sent it over the edge. In addition, he had suffered few injuries from being ejected from a truck, which had surprised everyone with accident experience, and his version of how the truck went through the guardrail had been contradicted by even his own experts. The jurors needed only use common sense to understand the scenario — intentional murder.

Peter and Rinette
Peter and Rinette

Schwartz took the path of asking the jury not to add insult to injury: a man has an accident and he must pay for that by going to prison? The jurors might not like the way Bergna processed his grief, but that did not imply he was a killer. There was no solid motive and the facts of the crash were obviously interpretable in more than one way. Clearly, there was reasonable doubt.

After seven days of deliberation, the jury deadlocked, with nine voting for conviction and three against. (Apparently, the jury sent a note to the judge indicating that one hold-out believed that if Bergna really had killed his wife, God would punish him and the juror could not live with making that decision himself.) The judge was forced to declare a mistrial, and Peter was released from jail on bail to await another trial. Part of the $750,000 bond included the deed to his home, worth $500,000. Bergna's wealthy mother took responsibility for the rest.

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