Durham News: Opinion

Gaspo: The Michael Peterson case: The plodding pace of justice

Michael Peterson
Michael Peterson

After I asked, a close family member of the late Kathleen Peterson wrote me about 10 days ago that the family believes a second murder trial for Michael Peterson is slated for November. But that time frame, I was told, is “not set in stone.”

That uncertainty may reflect starts and stops in plea negotiations, and the fact that the D.A.’s office, or the defense, or both, feel they are not yet prepared to move forward. It was time to get an official update.

Durham County Assistant District Attorney Jim Dornfried confirmed that he would be the prosecutor for a second Peterson trial, to be assisted by Kelly Gauger. He indicated he’s unsure about a trial date.

Dornfried said both sides are still going through the evidence. “There are things that need to be done,” he wrote.

Peterson’s current defense attorney, Mike Klinkosom of the Tin Fulton Walker & Owen firm, would not discuss trial timing or an array of other inquiries.

“Your questions inquire about information which I am ethically bound not to discuss and which I am not going to disclose/discuss,” he said in an email.

Michael Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder in the Dec. 9, 2001, death of his wife, Kathleen, at their home in Forest Hills. She was found at the bottom of a staircase with multiple, severe wounds to her head.

After eight-plus years in prison, Peterson was granted a new trial because the State Bureau of Investigation blood analyst was found to have misled the jury. Thus, the Durham County District Attorney’s Office has had almost two and a half years now to get ready for another trial.

Peterson has been free since December, 2011. Coming up on five years. He was released from house arrest conditions in July, 2014.

In a Jan. 19 story posted on raleighco.com, D.A office administrative assistant Candy Clark was quoted saying, “They still have to get discovery, such as all these documentaries, they have to get unedited copies of the films and all of that, so it’s not as easy as you would think it would be.”

It’s never routine to obtain unaired, raw footage from production or journalism companies. That could wind up as its own intense court battle.

My reporting suggests that one step outstanding may involve the defense wanting to revisit the former Peterson home on Cedar Street. That may not be simple to do, but it makes sense.

Clark also reportedly said in January that Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson will stay on the Peterson case.

Even with a new lawyer for Peterson and the breadth and complexities of this case, doesn’t it seem that taking three years to put things in order for a second trial is an exceptionally long time?

The first trial, which should be far harder to prepare for, got underway about a year and a half after Kathleen Peterson’s death.

Is this timely justice for Kathleen Peterson’s family members, who have suffered immensely from the loss and who endured the prolonged, arduous first trial?

Is this timely justice for Michael Peterson, whose life has been in legal limbo for so long now?

Maybe one or both sides still want a plea to take place, and are hopeful that the 11th hour will produce final “offers” that lead to resolution. It happens. Pleas can typically be discussed right up until the moment a trial begins or a prosecutor takes an “offer” off the table.

There are some intriguing new factors, should a re-trial proceed. First, the backdrop of a political contest. in 2012, new Peterson prosecutor Dornfried ran unsuccessfully for the seat held by Judge Hudson.

Second, the role and style of assistant D.A. Kelly Gauber, who would take over the chair occupied by Freda Black in the first trial.

And: defense attorney Klinkosum, who seems from my vantage point to be more deliberate, patient, and perhaps more nuanced than Peterson’s previous primary attorney.

This one-time mega profile case plods on almost totally out of public view. Late this year, it will be 15 years since Kathleen Peterson died violently, according to the Medical Examiner’s office, at the hands of another.

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