Owl theory supported by 3 experts

Staff WriterAugust 20, 2010 

— A lawyer for Michael Peterson filed three affidavits this week to further support the theory that an owl killed the novelist's wife.

T. Lawrence Pollard, one of Peterson's attorneys, says the written statements from three experts should persuade Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson to order the state Medical Examiner's Office to turn over all documentation related to Kathleen Peterson's autopsy, including photos, videos, notes and audio recordings. The affidavits also ask to unseal the autopsy photographs.

If granted, the information would be used to prove that Kathleen Peterson was killed by an owl, not from blunt force trauma, Pollard said. Michael Peterson was convicted of killing his wife in 2003 and is currently serving a sentence of life in prison.

Pollard is a former neighbor of Peterson who has pushed the owl theory for several years. Prosecutors and police dismiss his theory, which defense lawyers did not mention during Peterson's trial.

The request follows a News & Observer series that questioned the investigative tactics of State Bureau of Investigation agents. Testimony of SBI Agent Duane Deaver helped convict Peterson of killing his wife, who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in a pool of blood in 2001. Peterson's children, who recently wrote a letter to The N&O, want their father to have a new trial.

Pollard has asked Hudson to hold off his ruling until all of Peterson's lawyers have met and completed paperwork. A ruling may be made next week, the lawyer said.

"It does give us new hope," he said about the affidavits. "We know that we got the feather. We know that it happened late at night. We know that there was a small wooden slither recovered that was determined to be a tree limb. The SBI crime lab did not examine the feathers. They assumed these feathers didn't have anything to do with the crime."

Pollard has said that according to an SBI evidence report, a microscopic feather was found in Kathleen Peterson's hand with some of her hair.

The affidavits also included a letter from Robert C. Fleischer, who heads the genetics program at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, who wrote that he was willing to conduct a DNA test on the feathers to determine the species of bird they came from.

Dr. Alan van Norman, in the first affidavit, wrote that two lacerations on Kathleen Peterson's scalp appear to be a pair, with each laceration having "the appearance of a trident with three limbs converging to a point at roughly 30 degrees from each other and a fourth limb converging to the same point at nearly 180 degrees from the center limb of the other three limbs."

Listed in the affidavit as a former U.S. Army surgeon and current North Dakota neurosurgeon and owl expert, Norman recently wrote about owl feathers in The Bismarck Tribune. He said in the affidavit that the injuries are not consistent with a blunt instrument, but rather a large bird of prey.

"The multiple wounds present suggest to me that an owl and Ms. Peterson somehow became entangled," he wrote. "Perhaps the owl got tangled in her hair or perhaps she grabbed the owl's foot."

Dr. Patrick T. Redig, a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota, also agreed with the owl theory.

"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," he wrote in the second affidavit.

Kate P. Davis, executive director of Raptors of the Rockies, located in western Montana, wrote in the third affidavit that it is not uncommon for owls to attack people and that they can kill species much larger than themselves.

"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."

schamber@newsobserver.com or 932-2025

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