Peterson appeal claims trial errors

The Durham writer says that mistakes led to his murder conviction in the death of his wife

Staff WriterOctober 12, 2005 

The jurors who convicted novelist and columnist Mike Peterson in the murder of his wife heard testimony they should not have and were encouraged by prosecutors to speculate on what happened in the case, his attorney argued in Peterson's appeal.

The 88-plus page brief, filed exactly two years after Peterson's conviction for killing his wife, Nortel executive Kathleen Peterson, alleges that the trial court made numerous errors that warrant a new trial.

The contested rulings by the trial judge, Orlando Hudson, include his decisions to allow evidence of Peterson's bisexuality, talk of the 20-year-old death of a Peterson family friend and a search warrant that the defense maintained was too broad and invasive.

The appeal also accuses a prosecutor of improperly arguing that the state's witnesses were more reliable because the jury helped pay their salaries, and it challenges the decision to allow prosecutors to put on evidence that suggested Peterson and his wife had financial trouble.

Mike Peterson called 911 early Dec. 9, 2001, saying his wife was at the bottom of a set of steps in their home at 1810 Cedar St. Peterson maintained she fell. Authorities were suspicious from the start because of an unusual amount of blood. Detectives applied for a search warrant.

In the appeal, Peterson's appellate attorney Thomas Maher says that the police did not have enough probable cause to conduct a limitless search of the Peterson home. Days later, a detective obtained another search warrant, using the same justification as before, adding only that authorities had reason to believe there was more evidence to be found in the home.

From his computer, authorities found evidence that Peterson had an interest in sex with men. North Carolina case law requires prosecutors to show a direct connection between the crime and homosexuality before it can be introduced in a trial.

Prosecutors used the evidence to suggest a possible motive for the murder, but Maher wrote that the jury was left to speculate on whether Kathleen Peterson knew about the material found on her husband's computer.

The state's evidence on the Petersons' finances, which were loaded with credit card debts, did nothing more than lead to improper juror speculation about a financial motive for murder, Maher wrote.

Jurors were also left to conjecture about the significance of the 1985 death of Elizabeth Ratliff, who was found dead at the bottom of a bloody staircase in her home in Germany. Mike Peterson was not charged in her death, but Durham investigators determined that her death was not an accident, as German authorities had ruled. The state was unable to put on evidence that Peterson had anything to do with Ratliff's death, which made any discussion of her death during the trial irrelevant, Maher wrote in his filing.

Maher also contended that former Assistant District Attorney Freda Black improperly gave her opinion on the witnesses in the case during her closing argument. Black told the jurors that the state's witnesses could be believed because they "worked for the jurors," according to the appeal.

At a bench conference, Hudson told Black not to inject her opinion, but he overruled the defense's objections,

Staff writer Benjamin Niolet can be reached at 956-2404 or bniolet@newsobserver.com.

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