Justice for Laci

08/27/2003 AT 01:00 PM EDT

On Aug. 21 the remains of Laci Peterson and the son she wanted to name Conner finally made it back to their hometown of Modesto, Calif. With the coroners and forensic scientists having completed examining them, the bodies were quietly returned for the burial they and their loved ones had been denied for months. In a statement released a week earlier, Laci's kin asked for privacy so that family and friends could mourn. "Please treat her in death respectfully," read the statement, "so that we as her family will be allowed to lay her and Conner to rest in dignity and peace."

Dignity they will always have. But as Scott Peterson's Sept. 9 preliminary hearing approaches, it's hard to imagine that Laci and Conner will find much peace. At the hearing, the prosecution will for the first time begin to lay out its case against Scott Peterson. And with that – and the vociferous defense rebuttals involving satanic rituals and adulterous affairs that are sure to follow – one of the most bewildering and transfixing murder cases in years will truly begin.

In June, Stanislaus County superior court judge Al Girolami slapped everyone involved in the Peterson affair with a gag order; since then, only bits of evidence have leaked out. Now, however, PEOPLE, after an investigation based on interviews with multiple sources and access to confidential documents and photos, can offer a preview, with new details, of at least some of the controversial issues on which the trial may hinge. Among the most contentious: If Laci was only 7 1/2 months pregnant at the time of her disappearance, around Dec. 24, how is it that Conner's body was found with tape that may have been deliberately knotted around his neck? And what is to be made of the indications, however tentative, that somehow Conner could possibly have been born alive? If Laci was murdered on Dec. 23, why did several witnesses report seeing her alive on the morning of Dec. 24?

Ever since Scott Peterson's arrest on April 18, when state attorney general Bill Lockyer pronounced the case against Peterson a "slam dunk," the prosecution has seemed confident. Many outside legal experts believe Stanislaus County D.A. James Brazelton lacks a smoking gun to convict Peterson, 30, but feel he can build a powerful case based mainly on circumstantial evidence, most notably motive and opportunity. "I think what the prosecution has got are a lot of little bricks that they're going to use to build a big wall," says Stan Goldman, a professor of law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who has taught several principals on both sides of the case, including deputy D.A. Joseph "Rick" Distaso. Such walls can be quite formidable. "Circumstantial cases can be very difficult to defend," says one veteran L.A. prosecutor. "The more circumstances you have to point to guilt, the more ridiculous the defense story has to become."

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