Durham News: Opinion

GASPO: Patricia Peterson, for the defense


The casually dressed, demure woman with blonde-grey hair asked if she could borrow a chair from the table at which I was sitting. I nodded, knowing full well who she was. I wondered if she recognized me.

Her name is Patricia. Over my years in and around Durham, especially from late 2001 to late 2003, I’ve written and reported intently on the case involving Patricia Peterson’s former husband, Michael, who was charged and then convicted for murdering his second wife, Kathleen.

Kathleen was found near the bottom of a staircase.

It’s been common knowledge that Patricia has always supported her ex-husband. I decided after a few minutes to go over and introduce myself. She rose from her chair and hugged me modestly. “It’s wonderful to meet you,” she said.

I definitely didn’t see that coming.

I didn’t ask her a question about Michael Peterson’s case (his conviction was overturned, he was released from prison, and an announcement about the next step in the case could happen any day now). I didn’t have to. Patricia launched right into it, with a rich voice and gentle conviction.

Years after the trial, she was not hesitant to state her position.

Patricia said she’s known Michael Peterson as well and as long as anyone but his siblings. “Fifty years,” she said. “He is innocent of any involvement in Kathleen’s death.”

He just couldn’t do it and wouldn’t do it, she said.

I listened as we stood in a public place. Barista noise, people with kids, squeaky shopping carts, canned music on lousy speakers.

Ms. Peterson said she recognized that many people might not agree with her. She said everyone should search for this truth and truths in general. I acknowledged her words for a good bit without speaking myself.

“I knew and loved Kathleen,” Patricia said. She told me she’s taken flowers and cards to the Maplewood Cemetery gravesite many times. She said she knew a lot about Michael and Kathleen’s life as a couple.

Patricia said, “They would have been together forever, had she not died.”

She later added that in her view Peterson also did not kill Elizabeth Ratliff in Germany so many years ago. Liz Ratliff was found near the bottom of a set of stairs in her home in 1985.

The death was called a homicide in 2003, with severe wounds to the head, after an exhumation in Texas and then an autopsy by the N.C. Medical Examiner’s office.

Ms. Peterson said Ms. Ratliff was a dear friend of hers. “I suffered from losing both Liz and Kathleen,” she said.

There was more. Ms. Peterson brought up the so-called “owl theory.” She indicated only that an owl might have caused some of Kathleen Peterson’s terrible injuries. It is a theory that has not gained credence.

As her words slowed some, I reminded Ms. Peterson that there was strong forensic evidence that we learned contributed to the jury’s belief that Michael Peterson was guilty as originally charged. First-degree murder. Patricia’s eyes conveyed that she knew all that.

“Still, I’ve always believe he did not do this,” she said, “and I always will.”

Patricia said she hardly ever communicates with her former husband but added that they have the continuing bond of their children.

The subject changed. We talked of Ms. Peterson’s retirement about 18 months ago after teaching elementary age children for the Department of Defense at or around U.S. bases in Germany for more than 30 years.

Things are much more quiet now. “I am back now living in the same house in Durham,” Peterson said. She told me she’s resting, exercising and going through a life transition.

As the conversation began to close, Ms. Peterson said she had heard about my latest column on her ex-husband’s case, where I explored what a plea bargain might mean and not mean.

Patricia indicated that she had become aware recently of something I also learned in the last ten days or so: that apparently the latest assessment, at least at that time, was that there would likely be another trial.

Plea negotiations had stalled, we’d both heard. In confidence, I’ve learned some of the details as to why. However, the plea status could change at any moment, right up until a trial started or even before this column runs.

If the impasse continues, I understand a second trial might be scheduled to start next spring.

I did ask Patricia Peterson if she had a problem with me writing about our talk. Due to the unexpected circumstances, I felt it appropriate to gain her clear assent to have it be on the record.

Ms. Peterson said, “Absolutely. You didn’t have to ask me. It’s part of your job.”

You can reach Tom Gasparoli at tgaspo@gmail.com or 919-219-0042.