A lawyer for a former Incline Village art appraiser sentenced to life in prison for killing his wife in a staged wreck urged the Nevada Supreme Court on Wednesday to overturn his conviction.
Attorney Richard Cornell told the high court that Peter Bergna’s second trial, which resulted in his October 2002 sentencing, had numerous flaws, including a sloppy investigation by authorities who failed to preserve key evidence.
The lawyer for Bergna, who blamed the June 1998 wreck on Slide Mountain on faulty brakes in his Ford pickup, also contended that Washoe County district attorneys’ investigators didn’t check out part of the brake system because Ford Motor Co. representatives balked at the idea.
Justice Mark Gibbons said Cornell seemed to be suggesting that Ford was involved in a cover-up conspiracy, and Justice Bill Maupin questioned how authorities could be blocked from analyzing the brake system.
Deputy District Attorney Gary Hatlestad said defense lawyers could have arranged for their own testing of the truck’s braking system but didn’t bother. As for Cornell’s contention that Ford resisted such an analysis by the prosecution, he added, “I don’t buy that at all.”
Hatlestad told justices that Cornell had omitted “a few relevant facts” — including Bergna’s jailhouse admission to another inmate that he arranged the accident that killed his wife, Rinette Riella-Bergna.
The prosecutor also questioned Bergna’s claim that he was thrown free from the truck as it crashed through a guardrail and plunged 700 feet down the mountain with Riella-Bergna strapped inside. He said Bergna had only slight injuries and “should have been scratched to a bloody pulp.”
Prosecutors maintained during Bergna’s trial that he was upset with his 49-year-old wife for leaving her high-paying job as a pharmacist to become an international tour guide, a job that kept her away from home for long periods of time.
The first trial ended in a mistrial when jurors deadlocked nine to three in favor of conviction. A second jury convicted him of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years. He also was ordered to pay $282,000 in restitution to Riella-Bergna’s family.
Eight relatives of the victim were on hand for Wednesday’s high court arguments, including brothers Jack, Rick and Jim Riella.
“We don’t want to be overly confident, but hopefully justice will prevail,” Jack Riella, of Manteca, Calif., said after the hearing.
The Supreme Court will issue its ruling at a later date.