Jurors discarded prosecution theory early

Posted: Monday, August 16, 2004

ANCHORAGE (AP) Jurors considering murder charges against a Kenai man decided almost immediately after they got the case that he was not watching a DVD movie in his truck when he got in a fatal wreck.

Erwin ''Jamie'' Petterson Jr., 29, was acquitted of all charges in the Oct. 12, 2002, deaths of Robert Weiser, 60, and Donna Weiser, 56, of Anchorage. A pickup driven by Petterson collided with a car driven by Robert Weiser.

Jurors said they did not believe Petterson was watching a movie in a DVD player that could be operated as the truck drove down the highway.

''We threw the DVD thing out right away,'' jury foreman Terri Nettles said.

Nettles and two other jurors said that a 911 call the defense played in court had a key role in their decision to acquit Petterson.

The motorist who made the 911 call did not see the Seward Highway collision. However, he testified he was close enough to hear it and he told dispatchers that the Weisers' Jeep was driving erratically before the crash.

According to Petterson's attorney, Chuck Robinson, and testimony at the trial, the 911 call was not played for the grand jury that indicted Petterson on murder charges in May 2003.

''There were jurors that were very adamant, saying 'Why in the world is this even here (in criminal court)?''' Nettles said. ''It just seemed that from the testimony, there was no way to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.''

''I don't think the case should have ever come as far as it did,'' said juror Pat Reese. ''What we considered key witnesses were never heard at the grand jury level.''

Prosecutor June Stein declined to discuss details before the grand jury except to note that she has a duty to present evidence that directly negates guilt.

''There was none of that in this case,'' she said.

Petterson's trial lasted three weeks and attracted media attention for being the first case in the country where a DVD was implicated in a fatal wreck that resulted in the driver being charged with murder.

Nettles said both the state and the defense presented experts who testified that there was no way technically to know what was playing in the entertainment system a DVD movie or music from a compact disc.

''We felt there's no way to prove this; that takes care of that,'' Nettles said.

The defense said during the trial that had state investigators consulted an expert before removing the DVD/CD player from Petterson's truck or ejecting the discs from the system, they might have been able to show which was playing at the time of the accident. That too played a role in jurors' deliberations.

''The handling of the evidence surrounding the DVD/CD player was not as professional as it could have been,'' juror David Coombes said.

The ex-wife of Petterson's passenger and best friend, Jon Douglas, testified that Douglas called her after the crash and said he had been ''zoned out'' on a DVD at the time of the crash. The defense called in witnesses who were with Douglas and they testified that he never said that, Reese said.

''There wasn't any proof that they were watching it,'' Reese said. The DVD player, she said, ''became a nonissue.''

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