Durham County

PETERSON TRIAL: Verdict: Guilty - Durham novelist sentenced to life term in wife's death

Michael Peterson looks to his family as Durham County Sherrif's deputies lead him away on Oct. 10, 2003, after a jury found him guilty of first degree murder in the death of his wife Kathleen Peterson.
Michael Peterson looks to his family as Durham County Sherrif's deputies lead him away on Oct. 10, 2003, after a jury found him guilty of first degree murder in the death of his wife Kathleen Peterson.

No one heard the knock Friday except sheriff's Deputy Bryan Mister. He opened the deliberation room door, listened for an instant, then closed it. He turned to the dozens of people keeping vigil in Courtroom No. 1 and said, "We have a verdict."

Mike Peterson took his seat between his attorneys . His family huddled in the gallery. Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson brought in the jury, and the forewoman produced a manila envelope. Mister delivered it to Hudson, who handed it to court clerk Angela Kelly. She withdrew a sheet of paper and read it.

"State of North Carolina versus Michael Iver Peterson, file No. 01 CRS 24821: We the 12 members of the jury unanimously find the defendant to be guilty of first-degree murder, this the 10th day of October 2003."

Kelly asked: "Is this your verdict, so say you all?"

The 12 Durham County citizens who had listened to 14 weeks of evidence and deliberated for nearly 14 hours over four days, answered as one.


Peterson's brothers Bill and Jack sat stunned. His sons Clayton and Todd stared into space. Then sobs arose from the gallery's front row, as Margaret and Martha Ratliff wrapped their arms around each other and mourned.

Defense attorney David Rudolf said he would appeal the verdict. His partner Thomas Maher swallowed hard. The prosecutors hugged one another: District Attorney Jim Hardin and his two assistant DAs, Freda Black and David Saacks, had won an entirely circumstantial case.

The blood drained from Mike Peterson's face, and for a moment, he did not move. In less than two weeks, he would turn 60. Conviction of first-degree murder meant that birthday, and every one to come, would pass in prison.

Few men experienced the advantages that life conferred on Mike Peterson. The first-born child of a career Army officer, Peterson graduated from Duke University, then enlisted in the Marine Corps and earned the Silver Star for valor in Vietnam. The tour of duty inspired his three novels, which earned him more than $1 million.

He and his first wife reared their sons in Germany, where they took in the two daughters of a friend who had died, Elizabeth Ratliff.

Back in Durham, the couple separated, and Mike Peterson met Kathleen Atwater, a divorced mother with one daughter and a rising star at Nortel Networks. They married in 1997, and friends said they adored one another. Mike Peterson bought a grand house on Cedar Street, where Kathleen Peterson threw parties with good wine and homemade desserts.

Mike Peterson wrote columns for The Herald-Sun, and the public recognition led to a run for mayor. He lost. In 2001, he lost a City Council race.

Early on Dec. 9, 2001, Mike Peterson summoned help, for he said his wife had fallen down the back staircase of the Cedar Street house. The first responders saw too much blood for a fall, and 10 days later, a grand jury indicted Peterson on a charge of first-degree murder.

A year and a half later, the trial opened in Courtroom No. 1 on the fifth floor of the Durham County courthouse. Every day for the next three months, Peterson arrived with an entourage of relatives and old pals, who proclaimed the system was out to get Mike Peterson.

A time for writing

Throughout the trial, he wrote page after page of notes in longhand on legal pads. He wrote during the evidence of his financial problems, during the testimony of the $150-an-hour male escort he solicited via e-mail, during the blood-spatter analysis from the State Bureau of Investigation.

He wrote as the state pathologist described the fatal injuries his wife suffered, seven bone-deep lacerations on the back of her head.

He wrote as witnesses said he did all the talking when German police came to Ratliff's apartment on the morning she died, and when the state pathologist said she had the same injuries as Kathleen Peterson.

But he put down his pen when defense witnesses said his wife could have died from a fall in the staircase, and he exulted when Rudolf got a prosecution witness tossed out for perjury about his resume.

For closing arguments, Kathleen Peterson's family came to court for the last time. They did not need to hear a verdict.

Sensing the end

On Friday, as the jury resumed deliberations, spectators sensed the end of the story was fast approaching.

At 10:55 a.m., sheriff's deputy Bryan Mister answered the knock for the verdict.

Immediately, people jostled for the 80 seats. Cameras from the local television stations filled the aisles. Sound engineers extended their boom mikes. Hardin walked into court, Black on his heels. Rudolf and Maher exchanged glances.

From the defense table, Mike Peterson looked at his family and smiled.

He had eight more minutes of freedom.

At 11:01 a.m., Hudson took the bench. He issued a warning to the gallery.

"If you think you're going to have difficulty accepting the jury's verdict, and you're going to make noise or do something else disruptive in the courtroom, I'm going to give you an opportunity to leave. Right now," he said. "If you disrupt my courtroom while I'm doing this, and you cause a scene, I'm going to have you arrested."

He told Mister, "Bring the jury in. Tell them to bring all their belongings."

The jurors entered the box.

Hudson asked Kristen Lyon Jones, the forewoman, "Have you marked, checked, whatever, the appropriate spaces on the verdict sheet?"

"Yes," she replied.

The manila envelope came to clerk Angela Kelly, and as she read the verdict, the Ratliffs wept. Margaret, 21, dropped her head, and Martha stroked her sister's cheek as tears rolled down her own. Orphaned in childhood, they lost the woman who had cared for them in adolescence, Kathleen Peterson. Now, the man they had always called Dad was being taken from them.

Verdict and sentence

Rudolf asked for a poll of the jury. Kelly asked each one, "Your foreperson has returned for your verdict that the defendant is guilty of first-degree murder. Is this your verdict, and do you still assent thereto?"

Each of the seven women and five men firmly replied: "Yes."

Mister took the jury from the courtroom, and they left without talking to reporters.

Hardin stood: "The state prays judgment of the court."

Softly, hoarsely, Rudolf said, "That's appropriate, Your Honor."

"All right," the judge said. "Mr. Peterson, if you'll stand." Peterson did so.

"You certainly do not have to be heard," Hudson told him. "Anything you want to say before the court imposes judgment?"

Peterson turned to the people who believed in him. He smiled. Quietly, gently, he consoled them.

"It's OK," he said. "It's OK. It's OK. It's OK."

Peterson then faced Hudson for his punishment.

"The defendant is imprisoned in the North Carolina Department of Correction for the remainder of his natural life."

Mister withdrew silver handcuffs from his belt. He asked Peterson to put his arms behind him. The deputy wrapped the cuffs around Peterson's wrists and closed them -- cli-cli-cli-cli-click.

Mister took Peterson by the shoulder, and as he left, Peterson spoke once more.

"It's all right, it's all right," he said.

Then Mike Peterson walked out of Courtroom No. 1.

Two hours later, a deputy drove him to Central Prison, the sprawling brick pile on Raleigh's Western Boulevard. Friday's dinner featured fish, cole slaw and grape drink.

After judgment was rendered, Peterson's family fled the courtroom. Rudolf and Maher sat at the defense table for a few minutes, not moving. Before Rudolf left the fifth floor, cameras and microphones clustered around him, and he vowed to win on appeal.

Hardin, Black and Saacks went to their sixth-floor office. Jubilation rang out.

Courtroom No. 1 slowly emptied, and Angela Kelly sat at her desk next to the judge's bench. In 17 years as a clerk, she had announced the same conclusion to many a murder case. The Peterson story consumed the Triangle for nearly two years, but Kelly got no thrill in reading the verdict.

"Unfortunately," she said, "I read 'em all the time."

She tapped on her computer keyboard. On the screen appeared the paperwork formalizing the end to the trial of State v. Michael Iver Peterson.

Kelly filled in the blanks, then she printed out the form and signed her name at the bottom.