Bergna Loses Freedom Bid While Fighting Conviction

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Peter Bergna, convicted of killing his wife in a staged accident on a mountain highway near Lake Tahoe, will remain behind bars until the state Supreme Court rules on his appeal for a new trial.

Washoe District Judge Brent Adams denied Bergna's motion Thursday to be released on bail while the high court considers his case. The judge did not explain why.

Prosecutors argued there was no legal basis to release Bergna, who was convicted of first-degree murder in June 2002 and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

"He's a cold-blooded, calculating murderer. He's not to be trusted," said David Clifton, Washoe County's chief deputy district attorney.

"They say he's not a threat, he's a good guy. But we argue he is a flight risk, beginning with the fact he is serving a life sentence," Clifton said earlier this week.

Once a wealthy art appraiser from Incline Village, Bergna has been reduced to poverty by the cost of paying lawyers to defend him in two trials and several appeals, his attorney said in a hearing Tuesday.

Bergna was found guilty of killing his 49-year-old wife Rinette-Rielle Bergna in a 1998 crash prosecutors said he staged by jumping free of his Ford pickup before it plunged some 700 feet down a cliff near the Mount Rose Ski Resort southwest of Reno with his wife strapped inside.

Bergna claimed the truck's brakes failed and he was ejected from a window because he was not wearing a seat belt. He telephoned 911 from a cellular phone on the side of the mountain.

His first trial in November 2001 ended with jurors deadlocked 9-3 in favor of conviction. Adams presided over that trial as well.

Before he was sentenced last year, Bergna's defense lawyers sought to have the verdict thrown out, alleging juror misconduct during the six-week trial. Adams rejected the motion.

Bergna's attorney, Richard Cornell, argued during this week's bail hearing that while they are vague, Nevada statutes give a judge the prerogative to grant bail even after a defendant is convicted in all but a death penalty case or one in which life in prison without parole is imposed.

But Clifton said the law applies only to people awaiting trial and not those who have been convicted.

"You do not have the statutory authority to impose bail," Clifton told the judge. "The jury has spoken."

Bergna has been transferred to the medium security prison in Lovelock after four months in the maximum security facility in Ely, and was being allowed visitors, which Cornell said showed the system's faith in him.