DURHAM — The Michael Peterson hearing took on some trappings of a film festival Thursday, somehow appropriate for a criminal case that has spawned documentaries and a feature film.
Peterson's lawyer played a series of silent video clips showing former SBI agent Duane Deaver conducting exercises in bloodstain pattern analysis: Deaver striking a bloody sponge with a dowel; Deaver attaching bloody sponges to a mannequin head and dropping it 12 feet into a box; Deaver wiping a staircase and a wall with a bloody wig; Deaver stomping his feet in a small pool of blood; Deaver smashing a bloody mannequin head on the ground; Deaver wiping a bloody wig on his shorts and slowly pouring a flask of water on the shorts.
Each time, defense lawyer David Rudolf - who is trying to get Peterson a new trial - would accompany the silent clips with video of Deaver's testimony at the 2003 trial, in which Deaver explained why he conducted the exercises and how they showed that Peterson was guilty of killing his wife, Kathleen Peterson, who died at the bottom of a bloodstained staircase in the Petersons' Forest Hills mansion.
Helping the court interpret the video clips was not a film critic but one of the nation's more experienced experts in bloodstain pattern analysis, Paulette Sutton, a forensic scientist and professor at the University of Tennessee Memphis.
Sutton described them as exercises out of a beginning forensic science class.
Striking a bloody sponge creates spatter, Sutton said. So does dropping a bloody mannequin head. Wiping a bloody wig will leave a transfer stain on the wall, and pouring water on bloody clothes will dilute the stain, she said.
They were not scientific experiments designed to learn how the bloodstains were made in the Peterson staircase, she said.
Scientific experiments account for all variables and rigorously explore plausible alternatives, she said.
"They did not explore alternative explanations," Sutton said. "I don't know anyone who would accept not identifying all variables and how they affected the pattern."
Jurors at the 2003 trial have said one of the most important pieces of evidence was a bloodstain inside a leg of Peterson's shorts, which Deaver said shows that Peterson was present when his wife was beaten.
In one experiment, Deaver wore a pair of khaki shorts similar to those Peterson wore the night of his wife's death. Deaver puts a bloody sponge on a board in the staircase and stands with one foot on the floor and another foot on the second stair. He opens his legs, adjusts his shorts and smacks the sponge once, then moves the sponge and smacks it again. When his assistant, agent Suzi Barker, sees that it deposited a stain inside a leg of the shorts, the video captures her doing a sort of end zone victory dance.
"The thing that struck me is as soon as he got into the stairway, he pulled the shorts open," Sutton said. "I would have to do it with as natural a motion as possible. Opening up the legs means you're trying to get the blood inside the pants."
A crime scene
While Sutton was uniformly critical of Deaver's methods, she may be in agreement with his conclusion that the staircase was the scene of a crime, not an accident such as a fall.
On cross-examination by District Attorney Tracey Cline, Sutton acknowledged that she had reviewed photos before the 2003 trial and given her opinion to Peterson's lawyers.
When Cline on Thursday asked Sutton to state her opinion, Rudolf, Peterson's lawyer, objected.
"She is a true expert in the field; she saw the evidence," Cline said. "The methods used by Mr. Deaver, all of them may not have been correct, but was the conclusion the same?"
Cline said she wanted to call others the defense had contacted, nationally recognized experts such as Stuart James of Florida and Herbert MacDonnell of New York. They would criticize Deaver's methods, she said, but they would testify that Kathleen Peterson's death was not an accident.
Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson agreed with Rudolf: The issue at hand is not expert opinion, but whether Deaver was truthful to the judge and jury about his training, experience and expertise. Hudson said he would let Cline take another stab at her argument in court this morning.
On Thursday morning, Sutton had watched a video of a different Deaver blood exercise. Deaver and his former student, agent Gerald Thomas, were trying to re-create a stain found on a bloody shirt taken from a Davie County dentist charged with killing his wife.
As Deaver filmed and gave directions, Thomas carefully dripped blood from a pipette along the edges of a pocket knife, then wiped the knife carefully on his shirt. After the second try, Deaver exclaimed "Oh, even better, holy cow, that was a good one. Beautiful, that's a wrap baby."
Those remarks were one of the reasons the SBI fired Deaver in January, but that wasn't what caught Sutton's attention.
"The first thing that struck me is putting a line of blood on a knife with a pipette. What was it supposed to re-create?" Sutton testified when she took the stand. "The way the knife was stained only along the edge, I've seen a lot of knives used in cases, and I never have seen a pattern like that, not on a knife used in a stabbing."
Sutton said the blood exercise, filmed in the SBI lab, was the opposite of a scientific experiment.
"That's a re-creation; that's trying to make a set of circumstances and get your desired outcome," Sutton said.
Sutton testified after a series of defense lawyers who criticized Deaver's work in other cases.
Chapel Hill lawyer Diane Savage testified about how a federal judge found that Deaver gave false and misleading testimony in a 1993 murder trial. The judge commuted the death sent of her client, George Goode, to life in prison.
Raleigh lawyer Mike Klinkosum testified about how Deaver withheld blood tests in a lab report used to convict Greg Taylor of murder in a 1993 trial. A preliminary test indicated a stain on Taylor's truck could be blood; a subsequent confirmatory test was negative, but Deaver did not include the negative result in his lab report. The N.C. Commission on Actual Innocence in 2010 exonerated Taylor, who had spent 17 years in prison in large part due to the use of Deaver's lab report at trial.
The Davie County case
The Davie County blood exercise shown in court came in the 2009 trial of Kirk Turner. The jury acquitted Turner, finding he killed his wife in self-defense after she attacked him with a seven-foot spear.
The experiments by Deaver and Thomas were designed to "shore up" the prosecution theory that Turner killed his wife and then staged the attack on himself by ramming the spear through his groin twice, according to SBI emails obtained by Brad Bannon, Turner's lawyer.
Bannon testified about how he tried but never got a satisfactory answer as to why the agents put the blood only along the edge of the knife when the scene of the killing was the bloodiest Bannon had seen in his 16 years as a defense lawyer.
When Thomas testified at the trial, "he didn't know of a scenario where that would actually occur in real life," Bannon said.