On Bergna and guilt

Two inherent mysteries make a murder trial extra alarming.

Did the defendant do the deed?

Will the jury, seeing a mountain of evidence on both sides, decide the defendant did it?

All these years later, who truly knows, other than O.J., if O.J. was guilty?

Consider now Peter Bergna.

No matter how instinctive one’s belief—sitting in the courtroom on a recent Wednesday afternoon—that this dark-eyed, bushy-browed defendant being tried at the Washoe County Courthouse is guilty as sin, it may be impossible to be certain. I, for one, can’t say without a shadow of a doubt that he staged his wife’s murder—crashing his pickup through a guardrail on Slide Mountain after midnight on June 1, 1998, then leaping from his driver-side door while Rinette Riella-Bergna, seatbelted in, continued down the mountainside to her death.

And what of the nine women and three men on the jury? They are average-looking Reno-area folk who could fit into an Oprah audience. If just one entertains a shadow beyond a reasonable doubt come mid-November, when the trial concludes, Peter Bergna, in his charcoal pinstriped suit, will walk free instead of spending his life in work shirts and jeans, far from the gourmet lifestyle of an Incline Village art appraiser.

All the moms in the bleachers at my son’s Little League game later this day are familiar with this case. It’s no low-rent drama. She was 49. He was 45. They were married 11 years and involved in their community. He supposedly wanted kids; she didn’t. He supposedly was mad that she’d quit her high-paying pharmacist job to be a travel agent.

Supposedly he’d asked other women out.

He’d picked her up at the Reno-Tahoe airport after she returned from Italy. Driving up to Incline, they’d pulled onto a side road to talk …

Nearly three years later, police arrested Bergna. Detectives didn’t buy his story. A mechanic found nothing wrong with the brakes that supposedly failed. And why did Bergna end up 80 feet down the embankment and his truck 760 feet down? Why were there two open gasoline containers? To make the truck explode? Why did he have a cut atop his head but nothing on his face after allegedly being ejected from his open window? State troopers had sensed something amiss at the scene.

During my Wednesday visit, Chief Deputy District Attorney David Clifton—tall, gray-suited, with close-cropped beard and thinning brown hair—paces in front of the witness, an expert in murder investigations the defense has hired. The expert, white bangs sweeping across his forehead above wire-frame glasses, claims there is insufficient evidence to conclude a murder was staged.

Clifton, voice incredulous, picks apart the witness’ credibility point by point. Clifton comes to Bergna’s baseball cap. Troopers found it on the roadway. How could it have traveled backward as the truck tumbled down?

The expert says he’ll have to consult with “object-in-motion people.”

Judge Brent Adams calls a recess. In the elevator on the way down are two women. One is Rinette’s sister.

She asks my feelings. I say Peter Bergna seems guilty as sin.

However it turns out, a higher authority will judge the man, she says. “In the end, he’s got to answer to the Big Guy.”

“They always get it in the end,” the woman with her adds. “Look at O.J.”

In Florida, O.J. is on trial again, for allegedly assaulting a motorist in a road-rage incident. The jury finds him not guilty of that, either.