A week after Durham County residents do their part to select the country’s next president, Judge Orlando Hudson, in a Durham courtroom, will face a different decision of import.
Hudson presided over Michael Peterson’s murder trial in the 2001 death of his wife, Kathleen, and Peterson’s resulting conviction by a jury.
Then, years later, the veteran jurist ruled the convicted and imprisoned man deserved a new chance in court due to misleading testimony from an expert witness for the state during the initial proceeding.
On or after Nov. 14, Hudson will make up his mind on whether serious questions about the preservation of some of the case evidence means Peterson should have the murder charges dismissed entirely.
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Last week, to add perspective, I took a walk in Maplewood Cemetery, where Kathleen Peterson is buried. I had not been by in some time.
Within seconds of parking, I heard the soothing wind chime affixed to the branches of the towering oak tree that arches above her plot. Her gravesite near the top of a gradual incline is well tended.
Kathleen was murdered 15 years ago this Dec. 9. The multiple, grievous head wounds, according to N.C. Chief Medical Examiner Deborah Radisch, were inflicted by someone, not by a fall down a staircase.
Save for her family’s love and continuing grief over the profound loss, Kathleen sometimes seems an overlooked figure in this elongated, soap opera-like case.
She was attacked savagely, bled profusely and expired slowly. No one is being punished for committing that crime. It’s hard to claim Kathleen rests in peace, really.
Now and again, I see her one-time husband around town, doing his grocery shopping, usually. He’s been free for nearly five years.
One time, I went up to try to talk with Peterson, and he sharply exclaimed, “You!” Then he turned and walked away with his grocery cart.
In recent weeks, I saw him at the bank.
I walked into the University Drive branch and stood in a slow-moving line to the tellers. I heard a familiar voice and laughter off to my left. It was Michael Peterson.
He was about 20 feet away sitting in relaxed fashion in a bank employee’s office, chatting and chuckling. From appearances, it seemed life was treating him well.
I once saw Peterson with his son, Clay, in a Harris-Teeter parking lot. I was loading up groceries when I heard a telltale laugh, turned around, and saw Peterson the elder and his son walking together, enjoying something amusing.
Speaking of Clay Peterson, he made a few comments in all seriousness at his father’s August court hearing. The words reported bolstered my unsettling sense that his late stepmother has become sort of a minor character in this decade and a half drama.
The N&O story quoted the younger Peterson saying, in part: “It has gone on forever. But it really was a slap in the face this morning when Judge Hudson came back, and it just threw me right back to where we were 15 years ago. So, it’s ripping up old wounds again.”
Clay Peterson calling it a slap in the face to be back in court is a slap in the face to the memory of the admired and successful woman his father married and has said he loved endlessly. She died an agonizing death right there in the family home.
Peterson’s son said it was “surreal” to still be dealing with issues of his dad’s guilt or innocence.
Why? It was real the night Kathleen was slain. It’s real in court until the saga concludes. It will be real if Judge Hudson paves the way for a second trial or if he doesn’t.
I would not be surprised if Hudson maintains the charges and says he will rule on the admissibility of each piece of evidence either side seeks to introduce.
Plenty of powerful evidence remains unsullied.
I can also envision Judge Hudson encouraging the parties to make a final push in further discussions about a plea bargain.
A just resolution for Kathleen Peterson, her life lost to homicide, and for Michael Peterson, long in legal purgatory, needs at last to be reached.