Michael Peterson prosecutor Freda Black died of liver disease, autopsy says

Freda Black, the former assistant district attorney who helped prosecute Michael Peterson for murder, died last year of end-stage liver disease due to chronic alcoholism, an autopsy report released Monday says.

Black, who was 57, helped win the initial murder conviction of the Durham novelist in the death of his wife, Kathleen Peterson. The trial was the subject of “The Staircase,” the documentary made popular on Netflix last year.

Black had a history of alcoholism, and wine bottles were found at the scene of her death, according to the report authorized by Dr. Michelle Aurelius on Saturday.

Black had two daughters, and the autopsy says Black texted her older daughter with information for her attorney, who had her will.

The family asked law enforcement officers to check on Black on July 29, 2018, when they could not get in touch with her. Officers found her lying on a living-room couch, the floor “cluttered with food, wine bottles and trash,” the autopsy says.

No alcohol was found in her body, but she may not have been eating much, the report says. There was acetone in her blood, which the autopsy says is associated with periods of low calorie consumption.

The garage was open and the garage door was unlocked, and items that Black may have considered valuable, including jewelry and paperwork, were laid out in the kitchen, the autopsy says.

Black had had recent financial problems, but there was no evidence that she tried to kill herself, and her manner of death was ruled natural, according to the report.

“Although there were concerns for self-harm given the text and items at the scene laid out that the decedent may consider valuable, no toxologic or other self-harm cause of death was detected,” the autopsy says.

Black began working as an assistant district attorney in the early 1990s. She left the office in 2005 after Mike Nifong became district attorney and asked her to resign.

Black ran unsuccessfully for district attorney in 2006 and 2008. In 2010, she ran unsuccessfully for District Court judge.

Black later faced driving while impaired charges in Durham and Orange counties. A 2012 arrest warrant, in which she was listed as working at the Durham Cleaners, said she had a blood alcohol level of 0.18, more than twice the legal limit, The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun reported then. She pleaded guilty to the charge in 2013 and surrendered her license.

In 2015, she pleaded guilty to a second DWI, and in 2016 she was charged with driving while her license was revoked for impairment, according to court records.

“The Staircase,” released on Netflix last summer, became a hit and put Durham in the national spotlight as it followed the twists and turns of the Michael Peterson case. Black’s closing arguments, in which she described pornography in Peterson’s home as “pure-T filth,” was inspiration for a character in NBC’s “Trial & Error,” The News & Observer reported.

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Mark Schultz is the deputy metro editor for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He has been an editor, reporter and photographer in North Carolina for 30 years.