Michael Peterson trial, revisited

July 19, 2013 

Prosecutors are reviewing their options, but the order of a new trial for Michael Peterson, the Durham novelist convicted in 2003 of the December 2001 murder of his wife, Kathleen, by Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson has been affirmed. A panel of the state Court of Appeals upheld Hudson ruling in 2011 that blood analysis testimony from State Bureau of Investigation expert Duane Deaver was discredited.

The finding of an independent investigation found problems with the lab and with Deaver and he lost his job several years ago. Meanwhile, many cases involving blood evidence have had to be reviewed.

The prospect that Peterson, who was in prison from 2003 to 2011 with no possibility of parole (after a jury agreed with prosecutors that he beat his wife and she fell down some stairs, bleeding to death) would go free because of mistakes in the prosecution is mind-boggling to the prosecutors who put him in prison. They have argued that even absent Deaver’s rather strong testimony, there still is plenty of evidence to prove Peterson’s guilt.

But Peterson’s defenders say he was the victim of a miscarriage of justice, that he and Kathleen were happily married despite his bisexuality that was revealed during the trial. Peterson’s defense team also objected to the prosecution’s use of information about the death of a woman in Germany who was a friend of the Petersons and who was found, like Kathleen Peterson, at the foot of some stairs. That unfairly implied, Peterson’s defenders said, that he was somehow involved in that death.

Prosecutors can continue to fight a new trial, next taking the issue to the state Supreme Court if they so choose.

Now there remains the prospect that one of the most dramatic trials, and one of the longest, in North Carolina history will be replayed. That will be agonizing for all concerned.

But, as a series of News & Observer reports found, the State Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab, specifically the blood analysis unit, had problems, and in addition some in that lab saw themselves not as unbiased investigators but as allies of the prosecution. Which was certainly true in the Petersen case. (And in the case of Greg Taylor, an inmate released after serving time for murder when among other problems with the case, faulty use of blood evidence was found in his prosecution.)

For now, Michael Peterson is free and not allowed to go far from his home. Another trial will doubtless be long and painful for all concerned. But the fact that the courts would stand where they have, in view of the discredited testimony, should not be surprising. The system of justice takes some peculiar twists and turns on occasion, but the objective is and must always be fairness. And this ruling, as with Hudson’s, is a reminder that there are, and should be, consequences for not playing by the rules.

If Michael Peterson is innocent, then he must have a chance to prove it. If he is guilty, then allowing this battle in the courts to proceed to its conclusion, be that a ruling rejecting a new trial or one allowing it, will only give the outcome of the case more credibility.

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