The state has lost its zeal for prosecuting Michael Iver Peterson in the death of his wife in 2001, but the public’s fascination with the case may never weaken.
State v. Peterson has all the intrigue of a best seller: a well-known protagonist who wasn’t entirely the person his friends thought they knew; legal loop-the-loops, including a discredited state’s witness and a guilty plea in which the defendant adamantly denies guilt; and remotely plausible alternative explanations for how the victim died that suggest – to some – there was no murder at all.
In another era, Kathleen Peterson’s tumble down the back stairs of her mansion and her husband’s subsequent eight-year imprisonment might have inspired a ballad to join North Carolina’s musically murderous repertoire. “Omie Wise,” “The Ballad of Frankie Silver” and “Tom Dooley” all chronicle, with varying accuracy, violent deaths that occurred in the state in the 1800s whose legal outcomes were indecisive.
The Peterson case is immortalized in the media of its day: blogs and internet forums that include postings of legal documents and crime-scene renderings; at least two books; and an eight-part documentary that has been viewed around the world, remains popular on Netflix and has been the subject of at least one Duke University study group.
There are layers on layers of mystery. No one can ever be really sure of the truth – Truth with a capital “T” – regardless of what a court decides.
Patricia L. Bryan, a professor at the UNC School of Law
With Peterson’s plea agreement – in which he did not admit guilt – in a Durham courtroom on Friday, true-crime aficionados are left to argue from now on which injustice has occurred. Did Peterson spend eight years in prison without committing a crime, or did he outsmart the system and pay a bargain price for a cold-blooded killing?
“That’s what makes this case so fascinating,” said Patricia L. Bryan, a professor at the UNC School of Law and co-author of “Midnight Assassin,” about a 1902 murder case that remains similarly unsettled. “There are layers on layers of mystery. No one can ever be really sure of the truth – Truth with a capital ‘T’ – regardless of what a court decides.
“So you keep thinking about it. You keep debating it. You try to solve it in your mind.”
Bryan compared the fascination over the Peterson case to that of Jeffrey MacDonald, the former Army doctor who was convicted in 1979 of murdering his pregnant wife and two young daughters. MacDonald has maintained his innocence for decades, and has convinced many that he didn’t do it.
Peterson also had supporters certain of his innocence, but investigators believed they had solved the case not long after they responded to his 911 call on the night of Dec. 9, 2001. Peterson told them his wife had fallen down the steps, but from the beginning, emergency medical responders and police said later, it didn’t look right. There were too many head wounds and too much blood for a fall, they said.
By the time the case went to trial a year and a half later, investigators had named a missing fireplace tool as the murder weapon and had what they said were two possible motives for the killing. They showed the jury evidence that Michael Peterson had pursued sex outside his marriage, and that the Petersons, living in an 11,000-square-foot house in Durham’s Forest Hills, had deep financial problems. Prosecutors would argue that the writer and one-time mayoral candidate thought his money troubles would be over if his wife met an accidental death and he collected on her million-dollar-plus life insurance policy.
The jury also learned that Peterson was the last person to see alive another woman who had been found dead at the bottom of a set of stairs, a friend and neighbor of his when he was living in Germany in 1985.
Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder in his wife’s death in 2003 and sentenced to life in prison.
Eight years later, a judge set aside the verdict after problems emerged in the State Bureau of Investigation crime lab where evidence in the case had been evaluated, and with the agent who had done the analysis. Peterson was freed pending a second trial, which would have begun in May.
But on Friday, the two sides ended the legal drama with what’s called an Alford plea. Peterson still maintains that he had “nothing to do” with his wife’s death but acknowledged that the state likely could convince a jury he had killed her. The state, represented by prosecutors not involved in the original trial, allowed him to plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and accepted a sentence of the time he had already served.
At age 73, Peterson was free.
A case study
Duke law professor Thomas B. Metzloff, who was a neighbor of the Petersons’ when Kathleen died, said interest in the case will endure for several reasons.
“He was a larger-than-life kind of guy,” Metzloff said of Michael Peterson, whom many people knew, or thought they knew. “He lived this interesting life. And the case has all these twists that you can’t make up.”
The most unusual of those may have been when a different Peterson neighbor who is a lawyer posited the theory in 2009 that Kathleen Peterson was dive-bombed by an owl outside her home that night, retreated inside and, under the influence of alcohol and prescription drugs, fell backward down the stairs. He cited evidence in the case that Kathleen Peterson was found with microscopic owl feathers and pine needles stuck to her hands.
For Metzloff, what guarantees that the Peterson case will live on is the documentary, “Death on the Staircase” by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Though criticized as blatantly slanted in Michael Peterson’s favor, Metzloff says the film provides an extraordinary look at the inside workings of a defense team on a major murder case – while the case was going on.
Metzloff used the documentary as the basis of a course in 2015 for a small group of students who met at his house.
“It’s remarkable,” he said. “You’re watching (defense attorneys) Tom Maher and David Rudolf discussing whether Peterson should testify, and talking to jury consultants. It really helps understand the dynamics.”
Even so, those who followed the first trial, watched the documentary, read the books and Peterson’s final plea still may not have a sense they know what happened to Kathleen Peterson.
Bryan says that’s unsettling because people want to believe that good triumphs over evil; that they would know a murderer if they saw one; and that the justice system is effective.
A case like this, Bryan said, is a reminder that the system isn’t necessarily designed to find the absolute truth. It’s about finding the most believable scenario, Bryan said, given the available facts.
“There are times when guilty people are going to go free,” Bryan said. “But we have the principle that we’d rather have 100 guilty people go free than punish one person who is innocent. I don’t know that we can do any better than that.”