On December 9, 2001, Michael Peterson frantically called 9-1-1 at 2:40 a.m. to report that his wife Kathleen had fallen down a flight of stairs in their Durham, North Carolina home. Peterson indicated that she was still breathing when he made the emergency call, but she was dead by the time the paramedics arrived. According to Peterson, his wife fell while he relaxed by the backyard pool, but the autopsy and crime scene painted a different picture.
Michael Peterson was a novelist and former mayoral candidate. Kathleen worked as an executive at Nortel Networks. The couple exuded confidence and wealth. They lived in a massive 9,200 square-foot mansion. However, the reality of their situation was quite different. The couple carried significant debt, possessed minimal savings, and Michael Peterson was allegedly engaging in homosexual affairs.
During the autopsy, the medical examiner found seven lacerations on the top and back of Kathleen’s head. According to the toxicology reports, she had a blood alcohol level of .07. The medical examiner also concluded that Kathleen died from blood loss 90 minutes to two hours after sustaining her injuries. Though the preliminary autopsy report indicated an accidental death, the medical examiner ultimately concluded that her death was a result of homicidal assault.
Peterson claimed that no one else was in the house on the night of Kathleen’s death. Therefore, only two reasonable options existed: either he killed her or she died from an accidental fall. The police felt the evidence suggested Peterson killed his wife, and they charged him with murder.
At trial, chief medical examiner Dr. John Butts testified, “The multitude of injuries are not consistent with a fall down the steps,” and he flatly stated, “You don’t just get lots and lots of lacerations across the back top of the head [from a fall].” According to the paramedics, Kathleen’s blood was already dry when they arrived, and they believed she had been dead for some time, further pointing toward a potential homicide.
The prosecution utilized Agent Duane Deaver of North Carolina’s State Bureau of Investigation as their primary blood spatter expert. Agent Deaver testified that blood spatter found on the inside leg of Peterson’s shorts suggested he was standing over Kathleen when he struck her. Also, Peterson’s shoe left a bloody print on the back of Kathleen’s sweatpants; however, both Petersons’ were supposedly barefoot at the time of the incident.
The defense utilized renowned forensic scientist, Henry Lee, to analyze the crime scene. He estimated the fatal event took as long as 30 minutes. He described the scene as so bloody, it was beyond what he would expect to find — even from a brutal beating. Lee ultimately concluded Kathleen’s death was consistent with a fall, but his testimony conveyed more ambiguity than a definitive conclusion.
Peterson’s attorney, David Rudolf, conceded that if Kathleen fell, she fell backwards, hit her head, got up, and fell back down again several times, where each fall produced one or two lacerations. It was a rather implausible theory, but he only had to convey reasonable doubt.
In 1985, Peterson lived in Germany with his first wife. Elizabeth Ratcliff, a family friend of the Peterson’s, died from a fall down a staircase. A house-keeper found her, but Peterson was the last person to see her alive when he drove her and her children home after a dinner party the previous evening. At the time of the incident, authorities ruled it an accidental death. However, after Kathleen Peterson’s death, a second investigation concluded Elizabeth’s death was a homicide via blunt force trauma to the head. Was this previous death a red herring or directly related? Interestingly, one of the first decisions the jury made in Peterson’s murder trial was to disregard the death in Germany.
According to the State’s theory, Peterson killed Kathleen for two reasons. First, he would receive her life insurance money. Second, Kathleen discovered he was bi-sexual and a fight ensued. However, when it comes to intimate relationships, a motive can always be contrived. Motive is not a necessary predicate to proving murder, and it is almost always requires conjecture by the prosecution. The issues brought forth may well have given Peterson reason to kill his wife, but there is no reliable way to distinguish between cause and effect and merely correlation.
Though the blood and autopsy evidence created a strong case for murder, many factors could have placed doubt in the jurors’ minds. Police never found, nor could they conclusively determine, what Peterson utilized as the murder weapon. The stairwell where Kathleen died was narrow and it would have been difficult for Peterson to have swung a club or fire poker in the area without damaging the nearby walls. Yet, investigators did not find any corresponding damage to the walls. It is also difficult to conclusively distinguish fall injuries from blunt trauma.
Though not associated with the case, a neighbor and attorney, Lawrence Pollard, created what became known as the “owl theory.” Pollard postulated that Kathleen Peterson died as a result of an owl attack, coupled with a fall in the stairwell. Investigators found owl feathers and tree particles in Kathleen’s hair. Detectives also discovered clumps of Kathleen’s hair in her hand, as if she was grabbing and pulling at her own hair. The owl’s talons could explain the lacerations on her skull. It was a fairly far-fetched theory, but neither a fall nor an attack seemed to fully explain Kathleen’s injuries and the circumstances of the scene.
According to one juror, Richard Sarratt, the case boiled down to a few key facts. The deep lacerations on the back of Kathleen’s head pointed more toward an attack than a fall. Based on forensic analysis, blood in the stairwell dried and then was apparently splattered with a second layer, which was more consistent with a two-pronged attack rather than multiple falls. Finally, according to the State’s experts, Kathleen remained alive long after she sustained her injuries. The culmination of these factors led jurors to find Michael Peterson guilty of first degree murder in October of 2003. He was sentenced to life in prison.
The prosecution’s star blood spatter expert, Agent Duane Deaver was later found to have misled the jury in Peterson’s case and was subsequently terminated. His testimony on blood spatter was considered “materially misleading” and “deliberately false.” The entire basis for the State’s case was thrown in to question due to Agent Deaver’s malfeasance. As a result, in December of 2011, Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson granted Michael Peterson a new trial.
After frequent and lengthy delays, Peterson returned to court in early 2017. During his court appearance, Peterson’s attorney indicated that he intended to plead guilty to manslaughter. With time served, if the judge accepts the plea, Peterson will be released immediately and serve no further jail time. If Michael Peterson did not kill Kathleen, then Agent Deaver’s deceptive and misleading testimony helped convict an innocent man. However, if he is guilty, Agent Deaver’s poor decision-making allowed a murderer to leave prison decades prematurely. Neither scenario exudes justice. When those put into a position of trust, violate that trust, everyone suffers the consequences.
*This post was written by John W. Taylor, Author of Isolated Incident: Investigating the Death of Nancy Cooper and Umbrella of Suspicion: Investigating the Death of JonBenet Ramsey. To read more about John, visit his website at TrueCrimeWriting.com. You can also listen to his podcast at www.twistedpodcast.com.
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