Michael Peterson out of prison: Denying guilt, tasting freedom

Michael Peterson stands outside his lawyer's office on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill Wednesday Dec. 21, 2011 shortly after he was released from house arrest. Peterson, 68 was released from prison after eight years last week when testimony by former SBI agent Duane Deaver was found to be perjured testimony by Judge Orlando Hudson.
Michael Peterson stands outside his lawyer's office on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill Wednesday Dec. 21, 2011 shortly after he was released from house arrest. Peterson, 68 was released from prison after eight years last week when testimony by former SBI agent Duane Deaver was found to be perjured testimony by Judge Orlando Hudson. cliddy@newsobserver.com
Michael Peterson sat in his lawyer's office Wednesday afternoon twisting his wedding ring and talking about the electronic anklet that has monitored his movements over the past week.

The two symbolize the conflict that has marked the Durham novelist's life since Dec. 9, 2001, when his wife, Kathleen, was discovered dead and bloodied at the base of a staircase in their sprawling Durham home.

The anklet is a reminder of prosecutors' contentions that he murdered his wife, and the ring a symbol of the marriage that Peterson insists was strong.

Peterson said Wednesday he did not kill his wife, a Nortel executive.

"Of course not, no, absolutely not," Peterson said. "I loved Kathleen, I still love Kathleen."

Peterson, 68, is suspended between captivity and freedom after winning a new trial. Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson ordered a new trial last week after finding that former State Bureau of Investigation agent Duane Deaver misled the judge and jury about evidence in Peterson's 2003 trial.

When asked to describe his emotions about receiving a second chance at freedom, Peterson put his hand to his forehead in disbelief.

"It's still like that, 'Oh my God, I'm free,' " Peterson said, but he knows much must happen before he truly is. He's had a taste of champagne since his release to await trial, but he said he hasn't done a "victory dance."

Peterson was convicted of murder in October 2003 and has spent most of the past eight years at Nash Correctional Institution near Rocky Mount.

Peterson said Wednesday he regretted not taking the stand in his own defense during the 2003 trial.

David Rudolf and Kerry Sutton, defense attorneys who were with Peterson at trial and again on Wednesday, said it can be a risk to put a defendant on the stand.

Peterson had written many unfavorable pieces about Durham police, the city government and other things that he said he thought might be damaging to him on the stand.

Still he said he regretted not taking the stand to dispute derogatory comments that others had made about him, his marriage and his wife.

"Sometimes Kathleen was trashed," Peterson said. "They made her out to be this poor, pitiful person. I wish I had said some things in defense of Kathleen."

Peterson tried to explain how two women he was close to could end up dead at the base of stairs.

Elizabeth Ratliff, the godmother of one of his sons who lived near Peterson and his first wife in Germany, was found dead in 1985 at the foot of a staircase.

Peterson attributed that death to a cerebral hemorrhage and Rudolf, his attorney, said Peterson was asleep in his home when Ratliff was found.

Peterson described prison as a place where "if you do not go into that system with criminal skills, you learn them to survive."

While in prison, Peterson wrote most every day.

"About prison life," he said, "about the stories, the injustices. That is a completely broken system, the North Carolina prison system."

On the inside, Peterson taught classes for inmates seeking high school equivalency diplomas. He was in a pod with 60 cots and four showers. The inmates' day started at 5:30 a.m., but Peterson said he often would rise at 5 a.m. to get to the bathroom before the crowds.

Appeal under way

District Attorney Tracey Cline has appealed Hudson's ruling to grant Peterson a new trial. That could take months to wind its way through the legal system.

Since posting a $300,000 bond and being released from the Durham County jail on Dec. 16, Peterson has been under house arrest, his movements monitored by a chip in the electronic anklet.

He is under a curfew from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. in the home of a Durham friend. He is not allowed to venture beyond Durham, Raleigh and Chapel Hill.

Rudolf, who said he is representing Peterson pro bono these days, would not go into any strategies they'll use for the retrial or whether any plea deals might be negotiated to avoid a second trial.

Peterson said the tape of the 911 call he made to emergency dispatchers includes his thoughts.

"I came in and found her at the bottom of the stairs," Peterson said. He called for help, he said, "because I thought she fell."

Prosecutors say Kathleen Peterson's injuries were not consistent with a fall.

An autopsy found multiple lacerations and indications that she was strangled at one point.

Kathleen's sister Candace Zamperini said she agrees with the guilty verdict. She told The News & Observer last week, "My sister was beaten so badly at one point, she was basically scalped, that's how much her head was ripped open, and they want me to believe that happened from falling down a staircase."

Zamperini added, "The bottom line is she was murdered, and the only person who was there that night was Michael. So he did it."

Neither Rudolf nor Peterson said they could explain what happened to Kathleen Peterson.

Rudolf said, "That's the big mystery, isn't it?"

Staff writer Lana Douglas contributed to this report.

Blythe: 919-836-4948


Peterson case summary

In October 2003, after one of the longest trials in state history, Michael Peterson was convicted and sentenced to life without parole for the murder of his wife, Kathleen Peterson, 48, a Nortel Networks executive. Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a bloodstained staircase in the Petersons' Durham mansion on Dec. 9, 2001.

Peterson, a decorated Vietnam veteran and novelist and a former Durham mayoral candidate and newspaper columnist, said he was outside when his wife was injured. He called 911, but his wife was dead when police arrived. Peterson's attorneys argued that an inebriated Kathleen Peterson fell backward at least twice on the staircase and coughed up the blood. The defense also said Durham police contaminated the crime scene.

During the trial, it emerged that 18 years before Kathleen Peterson's murder, a female friend of Michael Peterson had turned up dead in her apartment in Germany at the foot of a staircase. Peterson reportedly had walked the woman home after dinner the night of her death.

The cause of death was initially attributed to a stroke, but a 2003 autopsy after the body was exhumed ruled the death a homicide. Peterson was never charged.

David Heggins, a juror at Peterson's trial, later told The News & Observer, "It was just too much that one man would be the last person to see two women, and both would end up dead at the bottom of a staircase. The chances of that are three times more than the MegaLottery."

Staff writer Lana Douglas contributed to this report.

Published Captions: Michael Peterson calls N.C. prisons "a completely broken system."