Michael Peterson (murder suspect)

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Michael Iver Peterson
Born (1943-10-23) October 23, 1943 (age 71)
Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Occupation Soldier, columnist, writer
Criminal penalty
Life without parole
Criminal status Nash Correctional Institution Nashville, North Carolina
Spouse(s) Patricia Sue Peterson (1965-1987)
Kathleen Hunt (1997-2001)
Children 2
Conviction(s) Murder

Michael Iver Peterson (born October 23, 1943) is an American novelist who was convicted in 2003 of murdering his second wife, Kathleen Peterson. On December 15, 2011, Peterson was granted a new trial.[1]

Personal and professional life[edit]

Michael "Mike" Peterson was born near Nashville, Tennessee, the son of Eugen Iver Peterson and Eleanor Bartolino. He graduated from Duke University with a bachelor's degree in political science. There he was president of Sigma Nu fraternity and was editor of The Chronicle, the daily student newspaper, in 1964–1965.[2] He attended classes at the law school of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After leaving Duke, Peterson took a civilian job with the U.S. Department of Defense, where he was assigned to research arguments supporting increased military involvement in Vietnam.

In 1965, Peterson married Patricia Sue Peterson, who taught elementary school on the Rhein-Main Air Base in Gräfenhausen, West Germany. They had two children, Clayton and Todd. In 1968, he enlisted in the Marines and served in Vietnam. He received an honorable discharge four years later after a car accident left him with a permanent disability. He retired with the rank of captain in 1971. During a mayoral campaign, Peterson claimed he won a Silver Star, a Bronze Star With Valor and two Purple Hearts. He had all the medals, but said he did not have the documentation for them. He claimed he had received one Purple Heart after being hit by shrapnel when another soldier stepped on a land mine, and the other when he was shot. Peterson later admitted his war injury was not the result of the shrapnel wound in Vietnam, but was the result of a vehicle accident in Japan, where he was stationed after the war as a military policeman.[3] The News & Observer said records did not contain any mention of the second Purple Heart Peterson said he received.

Michael and Patricia lived in Germany for some time, where they befriended Elizabeth and George Ratliff and their two children, Margaret and Martha. After George's death, the Peterson and Ratliff families became very close. When Elizabeth Ratliff died in 1985, her two children became Michael's wards. Michael and Patricia divorced in 1987, Clayton and Todd went to live with their mother, and Margaret and Martha stayed with Michael, who then moved to Durham, North Carolina. Peterson wrote three novels based "around his experiences during the Vietnamese conflict"[2]The Immortal Dragon, A Time of War, and A Bitter Peace. He co-wrote the biographical Charlie Two Shoes and the Marines of Love Company with journalist David Perlmutt. He also worked as a newspaper columnist for the Durham Herald-Sun, where his columns became known for their criticism of police and Durham County District Attorney James Hardin Jr., who later prosecuted Peterson for Kathleen's murder.

In 1989, Michael moved in with Kathleen Atwater, a successful Nortel business executive. They married in 1997, and Kathleen's daughter Caitlin also joined the extended Peterson family.[4]

Murder trial[edit]

Kathleen's death[edit]

On December 9, 2001, Peterson called an emergency line to report that he had just found Kathleen unconscious and suspected she had fallen down "15, 20, I don't know" stairs. He later claimed that he had been outside by the pool and had come in at 2:40am to find Kathleen at the foot of the stairs, he maintained she must have fallen down the stairs after consuming alcohol and valium. Toxicology results showed that his wife's blood alcohol content was 0.07 percent. The autopsy report concluded that the 48-year-old victim sustained a matrix of severe injuries, including a fracture of the thyroid neck cartilage and seven lacerations to the top and back of her head, consistent with blows from a blunt object, and had died from blood loss 90 minutes to two hours after sustaining the injuries. Kathleen's daughter Caitlin and sister, Candace Zamperini, both initially maintained Michael's innocence and publicly supported him alongside his children, but Zamperini reconsidered after learning of Peterson's bisexuality, as did Caitlin after reading her mother's autopsy report, and both subsequently broke off from the rest of the family. Although a forensic expert testified that the blood-spatter evidence was consistent with an accidental fall down the stairs, police investigators concluded that the injuries were inconsistent with such an accident. As Michael Peterson was the only person at the residence at the time of Kathleen's death, he was the prime suspect and was soon charged with her murder. He pleaded not guilty.

The Durham coroner concluded that Kathleen had died from lacerations of the scalp caused by homicidal assault. According to this medical examiner, the total of seven lacerations to the top and back of her head were the result of repeated blows with a weapon similar to a fireplace poker.

The trial drew media attention, as details of Michael's life emerged. Durham County DA James Hardin Jr. and the prosecutors (among them District Attorney Mike Nifong)[5] attacked Peterson's credibility, focusing on his alleged misreporting of his military service [6]) and what they described as a "gay life" he led and kept secret. The prosecution contended that the Petersons' marriage was far from happy, suggesting that Kathleen had discovered Michael's alleged secret "gay life" and wanted to end their marriage. Although police investigators discredited this theory,[7] it was the only motive the prosecution offered at trial for Kathleen's alleged murder.

"She would have been infuriated by learning that her husband, who she truly loved, was bi-sexual and having an extramarital relationship—not with another woman—but a man, which would have been humiliating and embarrassing to her. We believe that once she learned this information that an argument ensued and a homicide occurred" —Assistant District Attorney, Freda Black

The defense argued that Kathleen knew about and accepted Michael's bisexuality and that the marriage was very happy, a position supported by Michael and Kathleen's children and numerous friends and associates.[4] The prosecution maintained that a custom-made fireplace poker called a "blowpoke" was the murder weapon. It had been a gift to the Peterson's from Kathleen's sister but was missing from the house at the time of the murder investigation. Prosecutors showed jurors a replica and suggested that Peterson disposed of it after the murder. Late in the trial the defense team produced the missing blowpoke that they said had been overlooked in the garage by police investigators. Forensic tests revealed that it had been untouched and unmoved for too long to have been used in the murder. A juror contacted after the trial said the jury had dismissed a poker or anything like it thus making the poker irrelevant.[8] The defense disputed this finding as Kathleen's skull had not been fractured by the blows nor was the brain damaged. When asked by the defense why, in the 250 recorded beating deaths in North Carolina in the past decade, was there not one single incident involving multiple blows to the head which did not include these injuries, the coroner stated she did not research criminal cases so could not comment.[9]

Suspicion surrounding Elizabeth Ratliff's death[edit]

Elizabeth Ratliff, who died in Germany in 1985, was also found at the foot of her staircase with injuries to the head. The death was investigated by both the German police and U.S. military police. An autopsy at the time of her death concluded she had died from an intra-cerebral haemorrhage secondary to the blood coagulation disorder Von Willebrand's disease, based on blood in her cerebrospinal fluid and reports that she had been suffering severe, persistent headaches in the weeks leading up to her death. The coroner determined that the haemorrhage resulted in immediate death followed by Ratliff falling down the stairs after collapsing. Ratliff and her daughters had gone to the Petersons' home the previous night to have dinner with them, and Peterson had driven them home and helped Ratliff put the children to bed. The children's nanny discovered the body when she arrived the next morning. Peterson was the last person to see her alive. The state of rigor indicated that Ratliff had died late in the morning. There was no evidence that Peterson had returned to Ratliffs house after dropping her off the previous night while evidence does support that he was still in bed with his wife around the time of death.[3]

Before Peterson's trial, the Durham, N.C. court ordered the exhumation of Elizabeth's embalmed body for a second autopsy in April, 2003. Arrangements were made for the Durham medical examiner/pathologist who'd initially performed Kathleen Peterson's autopsy, to perform this reevaluation, over the objections of defense counsel who argued that the autopsy should be performed by Texas medical examiners. The body was then transported from Texas to Durham, despite the great expense it presented for the taxpayers in North Carolina. The Durham M.E. then found that, contrary to the autopsy reports from the initial investigation that was conducted in Germany ruling the death was the result of a cerebral haemorrhage, sufficient evidence indeed existed (drawn from the results of the second autopsy, in combination with new witness statements describing the scene), to overturn the earlier findings and list Ratliff's cause of death as "homicide".

The prosecution declined to accuse Peterson of Elizabeth's death but introduced the death into the trial as an incident giving Peterson the idea of how to "fake" Kathleen's accident. Despite police reports that there was very little blood at the scene of Ratliff's death, the nanny, who was the first to discover Ratliff's body in 1985, took the stand at Peterson's trial and testified that there was a large amount of blood at the scene. Another witness testified spending much of the day cleaning blood stains off of the wall. Despite the implication that Peterson had also murdered Elizabeth Ratliff, her daughters stood by him: "The DA is trying to say that our dad killed our birth mother and our mother. But where are we sitting? We're sitting behind our dad."

The admissibility of the Ratliff evidence in court was one of the grounds for the subsequent appeal against his conviction, lodged by Peterson's lawyers in 2005.

Verdict[edit]

On October 10, 2003, after one of the longest trials in North Carolina history, a Durham County jury found Michael Peterson guilty of the murder of Kathleen Peterson, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Denial of parole requires premeditation, despite the jury accepting the murder was a "spur-of-the-moment" crime they also found it was premeditated. As one juror explained it, premeditated meant not only planning hours or days ahead, but could also mean planning in the seconds before committing a spur of the moment crime.

Peterson was housed at the Nash Correctional Institution near Rocky Mount, until released on December 16, 2011.

Appeal[edit]

Peterson's appeal was filed by his defense counsel, Thomas Maher, now serving as his court-appointed attorney, and was argued before the North Carolina Court of Appeals on April 18, 2006. On September 19, 2006, the Court of Appeals rejected Peterson's arguments that he did not get a fair trial because of repeated judicial mistakes.[10] The appeals ruling said the evidence was fairly admitted. The judges did find defects in a search warrant but said they had no ill effect on the defense.[11] Because the Court of Appeals' ruling was not unanimous, under North Carolina law Peterson had right to appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which accepted the case. Oral argument was heard on September 10, 2007. On November 9, 2007 the Court announced that it affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals. Absent a reconsideration of the ruling or the raising of a federal issue, Peterson had exhausted his appeal of the verdict.

On November 12, 2008, J. Burkhardt Beale and Jason Anthony, Richmond, Va. attorneys, who were now representing Peterson, filed a motion for a new trial in Durham County court on three grounds: that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence about a tire iron; that the prosecution used an expert witness whose qualifications are disputed, and that one juror based his judgment on racial factors. On March 10, 2009 Peterson's motion was denied by the Durham County Superior Court.

Owl theory[edit]

In late 2009, Peterson's attorneys raised a new theory of Kathleen Peterson's death, that she had been attacked by an owl outside, fallen after rushing inside, and been knocked unconscious after hitting her head on the first tread of the stairs. The owl theory was raised by Durham attorney T. Lawrence Pollard, who was not involved in the case at the time but approached the police suggesting an owl might have been responsible. He raised this possibility after reading the SBI evidence list and finding a "feather" listed. Although Pollard did not speak of the theory to anyone else, the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper published an article ridiculing him and discrediting his theory. Other media picked it up, propagating the Herald-Sun story, which was later criticized as inaccurate. Peterson's attorneys subsequently determined that the SBI crime lab report listed a microscopic owl feather and a wooden sliver from a tree limb entangled in a clump of hair that had been pulled out by the roots found clutched in Kathleen's left hand.[12][13] A re-examination of the hair in September 2008 found two more microscopic owl feathers.[citation needed] Advocates allege the existence of other evidence supports the theory, namely that the scalp wounds were tri-lobed and paired, consistent with marks left by talons, the feathers are similar to those on owl feet, cedar needles were found on her hands and body indicating she had fallen over outside shortly before entering the house, that Kathleen's blood had splattered up the staircase rather than down, that Kathleen's footprints in her own blood indicated that she was already bleeding before she reached the foot of the stairs and that two drops of Kathleen's blood were found outside the house on the front walkway along with a finger smear on the front door consistent with her pushing the door shut. The advocates for the owl attack hypothesis also note that owl attacks on people are common in the area, with one victim stating that the impact was similar to being hit in the head with a baseball bat.[3] According to attorney T. Lawrence Pollard, had a jury been presented with this evidence it would have "materially affected their deliberation and therefore would have materially affected their ultimate verdict." Prosecutors have ridiculed the claim and Dr. Deborah Radisch, who conducted Kathleen Peterson's autopsy, says it is unlikely that an owl or any other bird could have made wounds as deep as those on Kathleen's scalp. Dr. Radisch's opinion, however, was challenged by other experts in three separate affidavits filed in 2010. Dr. Alan van Norman wrote "The multiple wounds present suggest to me that an owl and Ms. Peterson somehow became entangled. Perhaps the owl got tangled in her hair or perhaps she grabbed the owl's foot."[14]

Dr. Patrick T. Redig, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota wrote:

"In my professional opinion, the hypothesized attack to the face and back of the head resulting in the various punctures and lacerations visible in the autopsy photographs is entirely within the behavioral repertoire of large owls".[14]

Kate P. Davis, executive director of Raptors of the Rockies (a western Montana education and wildlife rehabilitation project), wrote:

"The lacerations on Mrs. Peterson's scalp look very much like those made by a raptor's talons, especially if she had forcibly torn the bird from the back of her head", she wrote. "That would explain the feathers found in her hand and the many hairs pulled out by the root ball, broken or cut. The size and configuration of the lacerations could certainly indicate the feet of a Barred Owl." She noted that owls can kill species much larger than themselves and that it is not uncommon for them to attack people.[14]

No motion for a new trial was filed on this point in 2009.[15][16]

Retrial hearing[edit]

In August 2010, following a series of newspaper articles critical of the investigative tactics of State Bureau of Investigation agents, Attorney General Roy Cooper led an investigation, which resulted in the suspension of SBI analyst Duane Deaver, one of the principal witnesses against Peterson, after the report found his work among the worst done on scores of flawed criminal cases. T. Lawrence Pollard subsequently filed affidavits[17] to support a motion that Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson order the state Medical Examiner's Office to turn over all documentation related to Kathleen Peterson's autopsy to Peterson's attorneys. However, judge Hudson barred Pollard from filing further motions on behalf of Peterson because Pollard does not represent him. A new motion was filed in August 2010 by David Rudolf, one of Peterson’s original attorneys who will act pro bono in any proceedings challenging the SBI testimony.[13][18][19] Deaver was fired from the SBI in January 2011 after an independent audit of the agency found Deaver had falsely represented evidence in 34 cases, including withholding negative results in the case of Greg Taylor, a North Carolina man who spent 17 years in prison on a murder conviction based on Deaver's testimony.[20] A bloodstain-analysis team that Deaver had trained was suspended and disbanded. In the 2003 Peterson trial, Deaver testified that he had been mentored by SBI bloodstain specialist David Spittle, had worked 500 bloodstain cases, written 200 reports, and testified in 60 cases. During the retrial hearing, SBI Assistant Director Eric Hooks testified that Deaver had written only 47 reports. SBI agent David Spittle testified that he could not recall mentoring Deaver who, since completing a two day training course in the 1980s, had testified in only four cases, the Peterson case being the third. The SBI cited the bloodstain analysis given in the fourth case as the reason for firing Deaver.[21]

On December 16, 2011, Peterson was released from the Durham County jail on $300,000 bail and placed under house arrest with a tracking anklet. His release on bond followed a judicial order for a new trial after Judge Hudson found that SBI blood analyst Duane Deaver had given "materially misleading" and "deliberately false" testimony about bloodstain evidence, and had exaggerated his training, experience, and expertise. Lawyers do not expect a decision on a date for Peterson’s second trial to be made before 2014.[22][23][24] Former North Carolina Attorney General Rufus Edmisten said that any evidence gathered after Deaver arrived at the scene may be deemed inadmissible in a new trial.[25]

Suspicions: a documentary of the trial[edit]

The court case generated widespread interest in part because of a televised documentary series variously named Soupçons (Suspicions), Death on the Staircase and The Staircase, which detailed Peterson's legal and personal troubles. The eight 45-minute episodes of the documentary were assembled from more than 600 hours of footage. It was directed by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and released by Maha Productions in October 2004. The documentary offers an intimate depiction of defense preparations for the trial. It also examines the role and behavior of the popular press as it covered aspects of the case. The filmmakers started their project within weeks of the December 2001 death and Peterson's murder indictment; jury selection took place in May 2003 with the case itself going to trial in July 2003.

Following the guilty verdict, de Lestrade interviewed the jurors to find out why they reached this verdict.[26] By and large, the jurors were swayed by the amount of blood Kathleen lost and the number of lacerations, which indicated to them it could not have been an accident. Dr. Henry Chang-Yu Lee, however, had testified at the trial that the amount of blood was irrelevant, as the blood spatter indicated most of it was coughed up rather than from the wounds themselves. He also suggested some of the blood could have been diluted with urine. Lee had also duplicated blood spatter from coughing for the jury by drinking ketchup and spitting it out.[3][27][28]

In November 2012, de Lestrade's follow-up documentary, The Staircase 2: The Last Chance, premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.[29] Before the premiere, buyers have expressed interest in both the new documentary and re-licensing the original Death on the Staircase series.[30] The film documents the Peterson family and its legal team's arguments in seeking a retrial, in which they succeed. The judge's main reason for granting a retrial was the finding that the blood spatter expert of the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation in the original Peterson trial had performed unsound blood spatter experiments in a large number of cases, including Peterson's.[31]

2007 film[edit]

The story was filmed as The Staircase Murders, starring Treat Williams as Peterson.

Later status of the parties[edit]

  • In October 2002, acting as administrator of Kathleen's estate, Caitlin filed a wrongful death claim against Michael. In June 2006, he voluntarily filed for bankruptcy. Two weeks later, Caitlin filed an objection to the bankruptcy. On February 1, 2007, Caitlin and Michael settled the wrongful death claim for $25 million, pending acceptance by the courts involved; finalization of the settlement by the court was announced on February 1, 2008. In the settlement, Michael did not admit that he murdered Kathleen. Caitlin is unlikely to ever collect a significant amount of the judgment.
  • Following the trial, one of Peterson's lawyers, Thomas Maher, resigned from the firm that bore his name (Rudolf, Maher, Widenhouse & Fialko). He is now Peterson's court-appointed attorney.
  • Lead defense counsel David Rudolf mentions the Peterson case on his website [4].
  • This case was featured in the episode "A Novel Idea" of Forensic Files.
  • This case was featured in the episode "Blood on the Staircase" of "American Justice".
  • This case was featured in the episode "Murder, He Wrote" of Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege, and Justice on TruTv.
  • This case was featured in the episode "Staircase Killer" of True Crime with Aphrodite Jones.
  • On December 15, 2011, Peterson was granted a new trial and released on a $300,000 bond while remaining under house arrest.[1]

Published books[edit]

  • The Immortal Dragon (New American Library, 1983) – historical fiction LCCN 2009-665719
  • A Time of War (Pocket Books, 1990) – Vietnam War fiction LCCN 89-49197
  • A Bitter Peace (Pocket Books, 1995) – Vietnam War fiction LCCN 94-37559
  • Charlie Two Shoes and the Marines of Love Company, Peterson and David Perlmutt (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998) – biography LCCN 98-30090

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ a b "Novelist Michael Peterson, Convicted of Wife's Murder, Is Released From Prison and Will Get New Trial". ABC. 2011. Retrieved 2011-12-17. 
  2. ^ a b "Guide to the Michael Peterson papers, 1961-2001 and undated, bulk 1972". David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University (duke.edu/rubenstein). Retrieved 2014-10-19.
  3. ^ a b c Death at the bottom of the stairs NBC Dateline November 25, 2006
  4. ^ a b "Wife's staircase death at center of novelist's murder trial". Court TV. 2001. Retrieved 2009-03-11. 
  5. ^ . In June 2007, DA Nifong was disbarred for "fraud, dishonesty, deceit or misrepresentation; of making false statements of material fact before a judge; of making false statements of material fact before bar investigators and of lying about and withholding exculpatory DNA evidence" for his actions in the 2006 Duke University lacrosse case.
  6. ^ Peterson had maintained that he had received a Purple Heart for a combat injury during his service in Vietnam, when, in fact, it was awarded for injuries sustained in a car accident
  7. ^ After recovering deleted e-mails retrieved from a part of Peterson's computer hard drive that Kathleen Peterson couldn't access, Police found that Peterson had been corresponding with a male escort via e-mail during the marriage. However, the e-mails indicated that their relationship was strictly online with Peterson writing to "Brad" that the relationship could go no further because "I've got a dynamite wife who I love." (CNN Judge allows computer evidence against writer accused of killing wife - 14 August 2003) (The News & Observer - 9 August 2003) At trial "Brad" testified that "Unlike most of my clients, he [Peterson] indicated he had a great relationship with his wife and nothing would destroy that."
  8. ^ "court TV becomes truTV". Courttv.com. Retrieved 2013-12-02. 
  9. ^ "court TV becomes truTV". Courttv.com. Retrieved 2013-12-02. 
  10. ^ "Defendant - Appellants Brief". Vanceholmes.com. Retrieved 2013-12-02. 
  11. ^ "State v. Peterson". Aoc.state.nc.us. Retrieved 2013-12-02. 
  12. ^ Feathers flying in Michael Peterson case le Monde September 5, 2008
  13. ^ a b Three affidavits support Peterson's murderous owl theory Durham County News Observer August 19, 2010
  14. ^ a b c Three experts back owl theory at the Wayback Machine (archived August 31, 2010) Stanley B. Chambers, Jr. The Durham News (thedurhamnews.com). August 25, 2010.
  15. ^ Attorney wants owl theory reconsidered in Peterson murder case WRAL-TV August 11, 2009
  16. ^ Evidence points to owl in Peterson case Le Monde September 4, 2008
  17. ^ Neurosurgeon and owl expert Dr. Alan van Norman, Dr. Patrick T. Redig, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota, and Kate P. Davis, the director of Raptors of the Rockies, signed affidavits claiming that the evidence and injuries are consistent with an attack by an owl, possibly a Barred Owl.
  18. ^ Michael Peterson impacted by SBI report? ABC News August 20, 2010
  19. ^ James, Jesse (2010-08-27). "DURHAM: Attorney forbidden from filing Michael Peterson motions | Crime". NewsObserver.com. Retrieved 2013-12-02. 
  20. ^ Troubled SBI agent Duane Deaver fired. http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/01/10/911881/troubled-sbi-agent-duane-deaver.html
  21. ^ SBI says Deaver exaggerated expertise The News & Observer December 08, 2011
  22. ^ Judge says Peterson must keep wearing ankle bracelet News Observer August 10, 2012
  23. ^ Durham novelist Peterson walks out of jail; awaits new murder trial. http://www.news-record.com/content/2011/12/16/article/durham_novelist_peterson_walks_out_of_jail_awaits_new_murder_trial
  24. ^ Peterson defense dissects Deaver's methods The News & Observer December 09, 2011
  25. ^ Former NC AG says it will be harder for the State to convict Peterson in retrial NBC December 17, 2011
  26. ^ The murder weapon was never identified. While his clothes were bloody from cradling his wife, Peterson had insufficient blood spattering on his clothes to support an attack. Media reports explained this by suggesting he probably changed his clothes, but investigators determined very early that he had not.
  27. ^ Court TV News CNN
  28. ^ Forensic neuropathologist Jan Leestma testified Kathleen Peterson had likely sustained four blows to the head, not seven as the medical examiner testified.[1] The prosecution counted avulsion wounds as multiple injuries and the Medical Examiner also initially counted four wounds following the autopsy.[2]
  29. ^ 10 Docs to Watch at IDFA 2012. Indiewire: November 19, 2012
  30. ^ Exclusive: de Lestrade making sequel to Death on the Staircase RealScreen: April 3, 2012
  31. ^ North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Forensics Scandal Grows With New Evidence of Fraud. Huffington: Post May 14, 2012

External links[edit]