Peterson lawyer seeks new trial

Staff WriterApril 19, 2006 

Remember Brad from Raleigh? And the close family friend who died on a bloody staircase in Germany?

If you weren't around for 2003's sensational trial of Mike Peterson, the Durham novelist and columnist convicted of murdering his wife, they're probably meaningless.

But the fate of Peterson, now serving a life sentence, could rest on whether the prosecution erred in introducing them at all.

On Tuesday, an attorney for Peterson told a three-judge panel at the state Court of Appeals that the "level of speculation" that laced the original trial should justify a new one.

Tom Maher said that the trial judge should not have allowed evidence about Peterson's bisexuality and the death of a friend in Germany long ago.

Maher also criticized the introduction of the Petersons' shaky finances and deemed a search warrant that resulted in the seizure of a computer from Peterson's home "unconstitutional," saying it all contributed to a "common thread of highly prejudicial evidence."

Mike Peterson told authorities that his wife, Kathleen Peterson, fell down a staircase in their home in the early hours of Dec. 9, 2001. The amount of blood at the scene aroused detectives' suspicions.

Attorneys for the state defended the evidence as relevant. Even if it weren't, they said, the amount of blood spoke for itself. "It does not necessarily take an expert to conclude from all the blood that this was not an accident," attorney William Crumpler said.

The judges lobbed question after question at both sides but reserved their most challenging ones for the state.

Judge James Wynn seemed to agree with Maher that there was not sufficient probable cause for a limitless search warrant. Wynn relentlessly grilled Crumpler, contending that the state incorrectly issued a third warrant on the same basis as the first.

"Surely that is not permissible under our case law, is it?" Wynn asked. "Give me one case that says you can issue a warrant, then use the identical information to substantiate another warrant."

The computer seized as a result of the third warrant provided details of Peterson's bisexuality. That information was important, said state attorney Jack Barnwell, because the defense painted such an idyllic portrait of the couple.

During the trial, prosecutors offered up e-mail messages between Peterson and a gay escort, Brent Wolgamott, aka "Brad from Raleigh," suggesting the messages could have sparked a violent fight between Peterson and his wife that ended in her death.

Maher said jurors could only speculate whether Kathleen Peterson knew about the sexual correspondence. "It's a fascinating theory, but there's literally no evidence," Maher said.

Much of Tuesday's arguments revolved around whether it was relevant that Peterson's close friend Elizabeth Ratliff died in 1985 after tumbling down stairs. Margaret Ratliff, one of Ratliff's two daughters whom Peterson raised as his own after her death, sat expressionless in the courtroom. She declined to speak to a reporter.

German police ruled her mother's death an accident, but the N.C. medical examiner's office determined that Ratliff had been killed. Although Peterson may have been the last person to see Ratliff alive, prosecutors presented no evidence linking him to her death.

Maher argued that introducing the circumstances of Ratliff's death "tainted" jurors.

But Crumpler said the parallels between her death and Kathleen Peterson's deserved consideration.

Judge Eric Levinson wasn't convinced: "If we say Ratliff's death should not be admitted, should the defendant get a new trial?"

No, answered the state: Autopsy results and expert testimony that Kathleen Peterson died from a beating should be powerful enough to uphold the conviction.

Mike Peterson, 62, was not in court Tuesday. He marked his 915th day at Nash Correctional Institution in Nashville, where he spends his time tutoring prisoners who are seeking their high school equivalency diploma. Maher said that he will tell Peterson he thinks the court is seriously considering granting a new trial.

"I've done this enough to know you can walk out feeling bad and win and you can walk out feeling good and lose," he said.

Staff writer Bonnie Rochman can be reached at 829-4871 or brochman@newsobserver.com.

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