Mike Peterson’s lawyers want no evidence about gay escort and porn at his murder trial

Mike Peterson listens during his hearing at the Durham County Courthouse on Nov.14, 2016.
Mike Peterson listens during his hearing at the Durham County Courthouse on Nov.14, 2016.

Michael Peterson, the Durham novelist accused of murdering his wife, wants to make sure a jury at his retrial doesn’t hear evidence about his contact with a gay escort and his interest in gay porn.

Peterson’s attorney, Dave Rudolf, filed two documents in Durham County Superior Court this month seeking to limit details suggesting that Peterson was bisexual. The evidence, seized in the days after Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in the couple’s home on Dec. 9, 2001, was used by the prosecution to try to highlight tension in the couple’s marriage during Peterson’s first trial in 2003.

Rudolf also wants to prohibit prosecutors from bringing up the death of Elizabeth Ratliff, a woman found dead in Germany in 1985 at the base of a staircase after spending the evening with Peterson.

The death of Ratliff, the godmother of one of Peterson’s sons who lived near Peterson and his first wife in Germany, was initially ruled by German authorities to be related to a cerebral hemorrhage. Her body was exhumed after Kathleen Peterson died, and her death later ruled to be caused by blunt force trauma.

During the first trial, Durham prosecutors offered no clear motive for why Peterson would want to kill his wife. They lacked a murder weapon and also a strong narrative highlighting exactly why they focused so quickly on Kathleen Peterson’s husband of seven years.

One allegation was that there was strife in the marriage, and prosecutors had discovered Peterson’s interest in the escort and porn from a search of his computer. Some of that evidence was gained from what the state Court of Appeals later ruled was an illegal search. Rudolf contends that not only should evidence from that search be prohibited from the second trial, he argues that the evidence led police down an investigative path they might not have taken otherwise.

“In short, the direct evidence seized pursuant to the unconstitutional December 12 [2001] search warrant went to virtually every aspect of the state’s case,” he wrote. “The appearance of the ‘crime scene,’ the alleged financial motive for the crime, the alleged ‘triggering event’ for the crime; Mr. Peterson’s abnormal interest in pornography, Mr. Peterson’s bisexuality; Mr. Peterson’s plan to have sex with a male prostitute; the alleged state of Mr. Peterson’s marriage, and Mr. Peterson’s alleged attempt to cover up what was contained on his computer after December 10, 2001, by deleting certain files and/or emails.”

Since 2001, Peterson has maintained that he did not kill his wife. His defense team argued several theories for how Kathleen Peterson could have died, including one in which they contended she tumbled down the stairs in an inebriated state.

Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife in 2003 after a protracted trial in Durham. He spent eight years in prison before winning a new trial and being released in 2011.

After failing to persuade a judge last month to dismiss the charge because of problems with the storage of evidence, Peterson returned to his original legal team, led by Rudolf. His trial is scheduled for May.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1