Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Point of No Return: The Case of Peter Bergna

Reasonable Doubt?

Michael Sion, writing for the Reno News and Review, sat through a day of the trial and came out thinking that despite a gut impression that Bergna was guilty of killing his wife and staging an accident, one could not be certain beyond a reasonable doubt. Indeed, he points out, it had taken detectives three years to arrest the guy. While Sion comes to no conclusion, he raises an issue at the heart of the case: how can we know for sure?

Let's look at the use of accident reconstruction experts. Those on the prosecution insisted that calculations support the incident as a staged accident, while the defense experts said it was not possible to prove that. Indeed, one could as easily interpret the evidence in the opposite manner and accept that the incident was, as the defendant said, an accident.

Donald J. van Kirk, a forensic engineering consultant for fifteen years, and a former senior engineer for Ford Motor Company, states that a reconstruction is not a re-creation, because it is impossible to actually recreate a specific accident. No two vehicles of the same make and model are identical; even from the same assembly line, they might differ by a few hundred pounds. The reconstructionist can only interpret the facts to devise a scenario that makes sense (fits the damaged vehicle, witness statements, and data from the scene).

Van Kirk admits that reconstruction is more an art than a science, despite all the mathematical calculations. This means that a solid interpretation will come from an experienced neutral expert with nothing at stake except his or her own reputation for telling the truth. Even at that, whenever a fact is interpretable, especially at crime scenes that have not been properly preserved, more than one scenario might be possible. As such, it would be difficult to base the outcome of a case such as Bergna's on the reconstruction alone. In fact, it was likely a case more about his character than technology.

Clifton was so certain of Bergna's guilt that he decided to try again.