As appeals drag on, Michael Peterson remains free

A retrial, if there is one, could be months away for Durham writer

ablythe@newsobserver.comDecember 15, 2012 

  • The story so far In October 2003, after one of the longest trials in state history, Michael Peterson was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for the murder of his wife, Kathleen Peterson, 48, a Nortel Networks executive. Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a bloodstained staircase in the Petersons’ Durham mansion on Dec. 9, 2001. Peterson, a decorated Vietnam veteran and novelist and a former Durham mayoral candidate and newspaper columnist, said he was outside when his wife was injured. He called 911, but his wife was dead when police arrived. Peterson’s attorneys argued that an inebriated Kathleen Peterson fell backward at least twice on the staircase and coughed up the blood. The defense also said Durham police contaminated the crime scene. During the trial, it emerged that 18 years before Kathleen Peterson’s murder, a female friend of Michael Peterson had turned up dead in her apartment in Germany at the foot of a staircase. Peterson reportedly had walked the woman home after dinner the night of her death. The cause of death was initially attributed to a stroke, but a 2003 autopsy after the body was exhumed ruled the death a homicide. Peterson was never charged in that case.

Michael Peterson has been suspended between captivity and freedom for the past year – free to roam unhampered through Durham and two neighboring counties for 16 hours each day, but restricted by a lingering murder charge that sent him to prison once before.

The Durham novelist was released from prison Dec. 16, 2011. The day before, Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson overturned his murder conviction and ordered a new trial after ruling that a State Bureau of Investigation agent gave false and misleading testimony.

Since then, Peterson has been living on Social Security in a house by himself in Durham, his attorney says.

Eleven years ago, Peterson’s wife, Kathleen, was discovered dead and bloodied at the base of a staircase in the sprawling home the couple owned in Durham’s stately Forest Hills neighborhood.

Peterson insists he did not kill his wife, and he often twists the wedding ring that remains on his finger as he contends that law enforcement got it wrong.

Prosecution isn’t giving up

Prosecutors and a 2003 Durham jury insist he is guilty, and the electronic anklet that monitors his movements as part of a pre-trial house arrest program is proof of the state’s intentions to return the 69-year-old former newspaper columnist to lifelong captivity.

Earlier this month, the state Attorney General’s Office filed an 89-page brief asking the state Court of Appeals to reinstate the murder conviction, arguing that Hudson was wrong when he threw out the case.

Hudson, the chief resident Superior Court judge in Durham, tossed out the conviction after a weeklong hearing. Hudson cited concerns about the testimony of Duane Deaver, a former blood analyst for the SBI who was fired from his job in 2010 after an independent review of the state crime lab revealed problems with his cases.

Hudson ruled that Deaver conducted unscientific experiments and misled the jury about his experience and credentials.

Other convicting testimony?

Special Deputy Attorney General Robert Montgomery contended there was plenty of other evidence presented during the trial that would have led jurors to reach the same verdict without Deaver’s testimony.

Four medical examiners said Kathleen Peterson was beaten to death and that she did not die from a fall.

Montgomery also pointed out that prosecutors had limited opportunities to question key defense witnesses at the hearing last year.

Tracey Cline, who was Durham’s district attorney at the time, had already issued a series of strongly worded rebukes of Hudson that eventually led to her ouster. Amid the turmoil surrounding her, Cline sought more time to prepare for the Peterson hearing, but Hudson refused to grant her request.

Montgomery contended in the state’s appeal that had prosecutors had an opportunity to present their own experts, there would have been testimony that backed up Deaver’s findings.

Peterson’s defense team, Montgomery argued, “could not present a single blood spatter analyst who contradicted Deaver’s ultimate opinion, and in fact to the contrary.”

Lawyer seeks more time

Jim Cooney, a Charlotte lawyer who is handling the appeal for Peterson, has requested more time to respond to Montgomery’s brief. If that’s granted, Peterson could remain suspended for months between freedom and captivity.

Under the pre-trial release agreement, he must be in his home from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. and may not travel outside Durham, Wake or Orange counties without permission.

Peterson is a regular at the Lakewood YMCA in Durham and makes many trips to the post office.

Efforts to reach Peterson were unsuccessful. But over the past year, his attorney said, the prolific writer and critic of Durham law enforcement has spent much of his time writing about the eight years he served in prison as a convicted murderer.

Though Peterson is subject to disparaging remarks on occasion while out and about, he still has a group of ardent supporters, according to Dave Rudolf, the lead defense attorney for his trial.

Some people who supported him during his trial have abandoned Peterson over the years, Rudolf said.

But documentaries about his case, particularly one by French filmmakers, have won Peterson new supporters overseas.

“He has lost some,” Rudolf said, “and he’s gained some.”

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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