At last Friday's buoyant media-circus press conference, Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard cautioned that Adam C. Peterson has not been convicted of anything and is, as a matter of law, "presumed innocent."
Perhaps there's a perfectly logical explanation for why the 20-year-old UW-Madison dropout's DNA ended up on the knife used to kill Joel Marino on Jan. 28, along with other items tied to the crime. You've heard of the Immaculate Conception?
But while there's apparently a solid basis for Madison Police Chief Noble Wray's proclamation of "a great sense of relief in reaching some closure on this homicide," there remain a dizzying number of gaps in what is known about this crime and the events that led to Peterson's arrest.
Don't expect that to change anytime soon.
"Potential damage to the public's interest in justice can occur through premature release of investigative details during the litigation phase of the case, not only the investigative phase," writes Blanchard in an email to Isthmus. "Information that came to light during the investigation of this case is still confidential except as release is necessary to litigate the charged case."
In other words, there are some things we may never know. What follows are 10 things we don't know now.
1. What prompted police to peg Peterson as a prime suspect? Peterson's name was on a list of individuals believed to have mental problems who've had contact with police. Then, according to Wray, "Things just kept coming together." The MPD has declined requests for this list, citing an active investigation and claims of medical privacy. The Minnesota search warrant issued to get DNA from Peterson is sealed.
Capt. James Wheeler, head of the MPD's South District, says "two pieces of information" tied Peterson to the crime, but won't say what they were. (One prompt, reports Ch. 3, was Peterson's refusal to voluntarily provide DNA samples.) The criminal complaint from Blanchard's office goes into great detail about the recovery of evidence that later matched Peterson's DNA. But it is oddly silent about why police came to focus on Peterson - so intently that the DNA tests that led to his arrest were performed by the State Crime Lab in a single day, a Herculean feat.
2. Did Peterson confess? This is a broader question than whether Peterson admitted to involvement in the crime when confronted, which police refuse to confirm or deny. The Wisconsin State Journal has reported that Peterson ended up in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital in mid-March after what his father described as "a psychotic episode" involving "extreme, verbal violence."
Did Peterson, in the course of his contacts with mental health personnel, reveal or hint of his involvement in Marino's death? Were these statements properly reported and promptly investigated?
3. How did Peterson avoid suspicion for so long? He was living in Madison for at least six weeks after the Marino murder. His twin brother called police to report his odd behavior; so, apparently, did his roommates. And police reportedly were concerned about Peterson's behavior during two contacts, before and after Marino's murder, in which he reported a stolen laptop computer. The MPD has rejected media requests for records of these contacts.
4. Did Peterson kill anybody else? Wray says there is "no current forensic connection between this homicide [Marino] and the Brittany Zimmermann homicide." And Peterson's father told the State Journal his son was back in Minnesota on April 2, when Zimmermann was slain, and working in the Dells last June, when UW-Madison student Kelly Nolan was killed. But police haven't confirmed Peterson's whereabouts and can't rule out that he returned to Wisconsin in early April. "Anything's possible," Wheeler told the press.
5. Did police attempt a photo lineup? The criminal complaint goes to some lengths to establish that a suspect was seen after Marino was attacked, and earlier, while buying a backpack recovered at the scene. These eyewitnesses helped put together a composite sketch that, it so happens, looks very little like Peterson. But police refuse to say whether they asked these eyewitnesses to identify Peterson from an array of photographs before images of him began flooding the media. If not, the reliability of any subsequent identifications might be called into question.
6. Is there any tie between Peterson and Marino? Police say they know of none. But why did Peterson go to Marino's house, of all places, to leave his DNA on the knife used to kill him? Some prior chance encounter? Eeny, meeny, miny, moe?
7. What are police doing now? At the press conference, Wray assured, "This case is still unfolding, even as we speak." But with a murder weapon, strong DNA evidence and a suspect in custody, what exactly is still unfolding? Will it lead to more information being subsequently released?
8. Is all of this secrecy necessary? Police have been extraordinarily tightlipped regarding all three high-profile Madison murder cases. They say it's essential to protect the integrity of these investigations. But how exactly did the secrecy surrounding the Marino case help? Is there any reason to believe what little information did come to light, to the chagrin of some authorities, was detrimental? (Blanchard declines to comment on this.)
Is it possible that giving the public more information might have had the opposite effect, helping shake loose tips and solve the case?
"It is always possible that releasing more might spark something," reflects Blanchard. "It is also always possible that releasing more might reduce our odds of making sure we are able to convict the right person for the right reasons. A balance needs to be struck...."
9. Will anyone get the reward money? The Marino Memorial Fund has scraped together more than $45,000 for information leading to the conviction of Joel Marino's killer. The money cannot go to police or other authorities, but it could go to someone who provided critical information that helped crack the case. That adds another element to the question of how police came to zero in on Peterson.
10. Will the homeless get an apology? Isthmus blogger David Blaska and local right-wing radio squawkers, prompted in part by police rounding up and getting DNA samples from homeless persons, freely speculated that Marino and Zimmermann were killed by transients, who they urged be given the bum's rush (Madison motto: "Homeless, Go Home"). And here the person charged is a college kid from out of state, neither homeless nor poor. Will Blaska and the squawkers now admit they were rash and eat some humble pie?
Okay, stupid question.
NOTE: On Thursday afternoon, July 3, DA Blanchard sent an email to media correcting a representation he and Madison police had made -- that the search warrant for Peterson's DNA, issued in Minnesota, had been sealed. In fact, the application for the warrant was not immediately available for other reasons, including that Minnesota typically imposes a 10-day wait before such records are released.