Mike Peterson changes his defense team

Several weeks after losing his latest attempt to have the murder case against him dismissed, Mike Peterson is changing his defense team.

The former Durham novelist and newspaper columnist will go back to David Rudolf, the Chapel Hill attorney who represented him at his 2003 trial.

The switch means Mary Jude Darrow, the Raleigh attorney who raised questions recently in several court hearings about the preservation of evidence in the 15-year-old case, will leave the defense team.

“It’s been a long journey, a unique case,” Darrow said. “I’m disappointed I won’t be seeing it through to the end.”

The case began in December 2001, when Kathleen Peterson, a Nortel employee, was found dead at the base of a staircase inside the couple’s Durham home.

Mike Peterson has maintained throughout that he did not kill his wife. But a Durham jury convicted him of her murder in 2003.

Peterson, 73, spent eight years in prison, then won a new trial and was released in 2011. He has been out of prison in Durham since then, awaiting a new trial that currently is slated for May 2017.

Last month, Peterson was in court with Darrow, seeking dismissal of his case because of the way evidence had been stored after the trial. Judge Orlando Hudson, Durham County’s chief resident superior court judge, told Darrow she had failed to meet her burden of proof to have the case dismissed.

Darrow was working with Raleigh attorney Mike Klinkosum in late 2015 and early 2016 when the attorneys began to review evidence from Peterson homicide case in preparation for a retrial. They found the evidence in numerous boxes stored in several different places in the Durham courthouse and police stations.

In court documents and hearings this year, Darrow has described finding clothes from Kathleen Peterson and her husband mingled in boxes stored in several locations. Notes from another case were mixed in the boxes, and envelopes with “biohazard” labels on them had broken seals that left the evidence open to possible contamination.

Darrow argued in November that because of the co-mingling of evidence and unsealed bags and boxes, the post-trial defense team had been hampered from doing reliable DNA tests and more for the retrial.

Though Hudson acknowledged the problems at the November hearing, he said he expected that a defense team might bring such issues at the retrial.

Since Kathleen Peterson’s death, Mike Peterson’s defense team has tried to cast doubt about the police investigation.

At the 2003 trial, Rudolf and his team not only argued that Kathleen Peterson could have stumbled down the stairs while inebriated, he and others on the defense team contended that investigators homed in on Mike Peterson as the suspect early on and refused to follow evidence that might have led them to a different conclusion.

Then in 2011, the attorneys raised new questions about the work of a State Bureau of Investigation blood analyst.

Hudson ordered the new trial after finding that SBI blood analyst Duane Deaver had conducted flawed tests in the case and misled the jury.

There have been talks since then about a possible plea arrangement between Peterson and Durham prosecutors that might negate the need for a new trial. But those discussions have not yielded such an arrangement.

Rudolf, who filed his notice of reappearance in the case on Thursday, said, “I’m always willing to talk.”

Rudolf said he has thought since July that he might return to the Peterson case. Klinkosum, who was appointed to the defense team after Peterson declared that he was indigent and wanted public representation, had a stroke in mid-July that has left him unable to participate in the case.

“Once that happened, I thought I might have to get back into it,” Rudolf said. “I spent a good deal of my life on this case. I’m very interested in it.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1