Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Point of No Return: The Case of Peter Bergna

Not Over Yet

By September, Judge Adams had to consider whether Bergna would get yet a third trial. Schwartz had already claimed that the conviction had been based more on a vindictive ex-wife than on the facts. In addition, he had found a way to show that the trial had not been fair: the area's publicity had been prejudicial, especially since newspapers had published that the mistrial results had inclined toward conviction. Before the trial had even begun, three jurors had stated that they believed Bergna was guilty. Hence, their expectations could have affected the way they heard and interpreted the evidence. He supplied the names.

Judge Adams listened to Schwartz for two days as he claimed that a juror, Nicole Abbott, had smoked marijuana, talked about the case outside court, and taken jury notes home with her. She allegedly had discussed the case with a man, Christopher Wood, who had then briefly shared a cell with Bergna at the Washoe County jail. This amounted to jury misconduct, they claimed, which affected the verdict.

The prosecutor countered that the allegations had been refuted and that, at worst, Abbott had merely made a few misstatements, claiming she had not discussed the case or heard newspaper reports when she actually had, none of which had affected the jury's ultimate findings. (Then a cellmate of Wood's claimed that Wood had said that Bergna offered him $50,000 to spill the goods on Abbott, although this claim, too, was not substantiated.)

Schwartz responded that the system should not tolerate such lies, because they were on "substantive, important issues." Clifton called them "momentary lapses."

On September 25, after due consideration, Judge Adams upheld the conviction and denied Bergna's bid for a third trial. He believed the verdict had been fair and impartial. "The court..." he stated, "does not believe that the totality of evidence fails to prove the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

Bergna appealed this decision to the Nevada Supreme Court, asking to be released on bail until his case could be heard. He offered to put up his mother's house in Saratoga, California as assurance he would not flee. Clifton objected, stating that the risk of flight was significant. He also said that Nevada courts do not have jurisdiction to grant bail when there is proof and a presumption that the defendant has committed murder. Judge Adams scheduled the hearing for October 21 and at that time denied Bergna's request, stating that he had not met the burden of proof that he was not a flight risk.

On October 28, after Bergna declined to make a statement, he was formally sentence to life in prison, with eligibility of parole in twenty years. He was also required to repay the family of his deceased wife the $282,000 they had given him as her inheritance.

In December 2004, the Nevada Supreme Court published its opinion on Bergna's appeal of the denial for a third trial. The court upheld the jury's decision and found Bergna's claim that the trial was unfair to be without merit. He was denied a retrial. Bergna was disappointed with this outcome, but Clifton viewed the decision as closure and justice finally done.

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