NC Supreme Court will not review Michael Peterson case; new trial likely next year

ablythe@newsobserver.comDecember 20, 2013 

— The N.C. Supreme Court has rejected a request to review an N.C. Court of Appeals ruling that granted Michael Peterson a new trial. The decision was released Friday with no explanation.

It sets a path for a new trial in 2014, almost 11 years after a protracted one in Durham that resulted in a guilty verdict.

Peterson, a Durham novelist accused of killing his wife, Kathleen, has been suspended between a state of freedom and captivity for two years.

In December 2011, Orlando Hudson, Durham’s chief resident Superior Court judge, vacated the 2003 murder conviction that put Peterson behind bars for eight years.

The N.C. Court of Appeals issued a ruling in July upholding Hudson’s decision to grant Peterson a new trial.

In a unanimous decision, three appeals court judges – Robert C. Hunter, Donna Stroud and Sam J. Ervin IV – ruled that new evidence about one of the prosecution’s expert witnesses warranted a new trial.

That witness, Duane Deaver, a former State Bureau of Investigation blood analyst, was forced out of his job several years ago after an independent review of the state crime lab revealed problems with some of his cases.

Hudson ruled that Deaver conducted unscientific experiments and misled the jury about his experience and credentials. Hudson tossed out the murder conviction over the objections of Tracey Cline, Durham’s district attorney at the time.

Long murder trial

Peterson was found guilty on Oct. 10, 2003, after one of the longest trials in North Carolina history, of murdering Kathleen Peterson in their Durham home.

Deaver, according to the appeals court ruling, testified that Kathleen Peterson, who was found dead at the base of a staircase, was struck “a minimum of four times with a blowpipe prior to falling down the stairs.”

Deaver further stated at trial that “based on his bloodstain analysis,” Michael Peterson attempted “to clean up the scene, including his pants, prior to police arriving.”

Counsel for the state attorney general’s office, which requested the review by the N.C. Supreme Court, submitted documents to the appeals court last December seeking to reinstate the murder conviction.

They argued that such an action would save the state the expense of a new trial.

‘Completely undermined’

Special Deputy Attorney General Robert Montgomery argued there was plenty of other evidence presented during the 2003 trial that would have led jurors to reach the same verdict without Deaver’s testimony.

The appeals court judges ruled otherwise.

“Due to the importance of Agent Deaver’s testimony, the evidence concerning his qualifications would have completely undermined the credibility of the State’s entire theory of the case,” the judges said.

The appeals court panel further stated that while prosecutors offered “other expert testimony concerning Ms. Peterson’s death, the testimony of Agent Deaver was central to the state’s case. He was the only witness to describe to the jury how he believed defendant killed his wife.”

Moreover, the appeals court panel said, “Deaver was the only witness to testify that the bloodstains indicated that defendant had tried to not only clean up the scene but was also close to Ms. Peterson at the time she sustained injuries.”

Jim Cooney, the Charlotte defense attorney representing Peterson on appeal, argued in March that “the state would not be harmed by having to retry the defendant without using the false and perjured testimony of an SBI agent.”

Cooney further contended that a retrial would be an assurance that a new verdict was rendered fairly.

“The expense needed to come to that judgment is a small price to pay given that imprisonment for life is the penalty for this crime,” Cooney stated in his motion to dismiss the state’s appeal to reinstate the trial.

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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