Mike Peterson, who won freedom from a murder conviction after raising doubts about the work and testimony of a state blood analyst, is scheduled to return to Durham County Superior Court on Monday to begin building a case for not having to go through a second trial.
Peterson contends that evidence in his 15-year-old case has been improperly preserved. In the hearing this week, Peterson hopes to get testimony from courthouse clerks, police and others to find out more about the handling of boxes that his new attorneys found in disarray after taking over his case.
Peterson, 72, awaits a second trial on accusations that he murdered his wife, Kathleen Peterson, on Dec. 9, 2001.
Though a Durham jury convicted Peterson of first-degree murder in 2003, the former Durham newspaper columnist and novelist was freed from prison in December 2011.
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Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson vacated the conviction after defense lawyers brought forward evidence about one of the prosecution’s expert witnesses at the 2003 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.
Since then, Durham prosecutors have talked about the potential for a plea agreement. But Peterson has maintained that he did not kill his wife and talks of plea negotiations have fallen apart.
Peterson’s case has been featured in the documentary “The Staircase,” as well as in several episodes of “Dateline NBC.”
Two staircase deaths
When prosecutors went to trial 13 years ago, they did so without a murder weapon or a clear motive for the death of Kathleen Peterson. She was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in the couple’s expansive home in Durham. Prosecutors argued that financial troubles had strained the couple’s relationship. They also contended that Mike Peterson had solicited sex from a male escort over the internet.
At the first trial, one of the longest in Durham County’s history, Peterson’s defense team argued that an inebriated Kathleen Peterson fell backward at least twice on the staircase and coughed up blood. The attorneys also argued that Durham police contaminated the crime scene.
Prosecutors argued that Peterson’s wife, a Nortel employee, had suffered a bludgeoning by her husband. They brought in evidence about a female friend of Mike Peterson’s who also was found dead at the foot of the stairs in an apartment in Germany 18 years before Kathleen Peterson’s death.
In the German case, Mike Peterson reportedly had walked the woman home after dinner the night of her death. His attorney said Peterson was at home asleep when the woman suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage.
The cause of death in the German case initially was attributed to a stroke, but a 2003 autopsy after the body was exhumed ruled the death a homicide. Peterson was never charged with a crime in that death, but the incident loomed large in the prosecutor’s case in Durham.
In a court document filed in Durham County Superior Court in May, Raleigh attorneys Mike Klinkosum and Mary Jude Darrow argued that the first-degree murder charge against Peterson should be dismissed.
To support their argument, the defense attorneys described the condition in which they found evidence – stored in boxes in police offices and the Durham County clerk’s office. Garbage was on a sweatshirt. Notes from another case were mixed in the boxes, and envelopes with “biohazard” labels on them had broken seals that left the evidence open to possible contamination.
Forecasting their defense
The attorneys also outlined an argument the defense team might make if the case were to go to trial again – the possibility of intruders.
They argued that Durham police focused on Peterson, a longtime critic of city police and officials, shortly after arriving at the home where Kathleen Peterson was found lifeless. There was blood spattered on the staircase wall and elsewhere.
“Within minutes and hours of arriving at the Peterson home,” the attorneys said in the May court document, “the Durham Police Department began treating Mr. Peterson like a suspect.”
Darrow and Klinkosum, who suffered a massive stroke recently and will not be at the hearing, argued in their May court filing that an intruder could have been inside the home.
To bolster the theory, the defense included passages from newspaper columns and a failed campaign for Durham mayor in which Peterson was critical of city officials and talked about going after drug dealers.
“When considering the tone and rhetoric of many of Mr. Peterson’s columns, as well as his targets as a mayoral candidate, particularly individuals involved in the drug trade in Durham, it is not outside the realm of possibility that someone who felt severely threatened by Mr. Peterson and his statements came to the residence on December 9, 2001, to confront or harm him but, instead, confronted and killed Mrs. Peterson,” the request for dismissal states.
If the defense were to go that route, the document states, Peterson’s lawyers would want to test or retest evidence. The attorneys questioned why Kathleen Peterson’s clothes were diverted from State Bureau of Investigation labs for DNA testing to the blood splatter area where Deaver worked.
Peterson’s new defense team argued that other evidence was “diverted” from DNA testing, including hair samples found on the stairway. “Mr. Peterson’s right to inspect and test the evidence in this case has been violated to the extent that he cannot obtain valid and reliable forensic testing to determine whether someone else caused the death of Mrs. Peterson,” the request to dismiss states. As a result, the defense team contends, Peterson’s “rights have been flagrantly violated, causing irreparable prejudice to the preparation of his case such that there is no remedy but to dismiss this prosecution.”
Darrow said recently that she expected the request to dismiss the case to be considered several months from now.
Much of the reason for the Monday hearing, she said, would be to solicit testimony about how the evidence has been stored over the past decade and a half.