Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Point of No Return: The Case of Peter Bergna

The First Trial

Washoe County District Judge Brent Adams
Washoe County District Judge Brent Adams

Washoe County District Judge Brent Adams presided over the trial, which began on October 4, 2001. Clifton's belief, from calculations, was that the truck had been traveling at 22 mph, and had gone through the guardrail at a right angle, 60 to 90 degrees. The curve around the mountain wound to the left and the truck would have been going that way as it proceeded down the mountain, but to hit the guardrail, the driver had to have turned right. Clifton said that Bergna had jumped from the truck before it hit, rolling his foot in a way that sprained it and left a mark from the road on the tennis shoe he wore. He did not have a seatbelt on, as if ready to jump.

Peter Bergna
Peter Bergna

In an aggressive and confident move, Schwartz dismissed most of this theory and stated that cornstarch found on Bergna's clothing was consistent with the airbag deploying, which proved he was in the truck when it contacted the guardrail. As for his attention to women, that was part of his business, and in any event it was hardly an indication that he was a murderer. Schwartz also questioned Schilling's credentials, saying that he had only attended a few brief training sessions, and hence, was no expert. In addition, their expert calculations indicated that the truck had not struck the guardrail at right angles but had instead slid along the edge and hit the post, which projected the truck into the air with a twisting motion that would have allowed Bergna to be ejected out the open window in the manner he described.

Clifton played the 911 call to open things up, and the police and emergency team witnesses came on the stand to discuss their encounters with Bergna on the night of May 31/June 1, 1998. Then the case went into the technicalities of accident reconstruction, with Schilling showing how the defense theory had to be wrong. Schwartz worked hard to undermine Schilling's credibility, so it was clearly a matter for the jury to decide — if they even followed the mathematical details.

On October 11, Judge Adams nearly had to call a mistrial. Detective Belton was answering questions about his interrogation of Bergna the day after Rinette Bergna's death and he mentioned that he'd asked Bergna to come in the following day to take "a test." While he did not specify polygraph, which would be inadmissible and could unfairly prejudice the jury, it was clear what he meant and he had been instructed not to refer to it. In fact, all police officers knew that they should not do this in court; it was, in fact, unlawful to do so. The jury was asked to leave as Schwartz instantly demanded a mistrial. He debated with the Clifton, getting hot under the collar and, in one reporter's words, they "nearly came to blows."

Judge Adams told them to stop and said he'd had enough of their antics. He threatened fines all around, followed by contempt citations, and then denied the request for a mistrial. Nevertheless, he told Beltron he could have cost tax payers a considerable amount of money to reseat a jury. He then invited the jury to return.

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