The long-running murder charges against Michael Peterson are set to be resolved Friday with a manslaughter plea that precludes a second trial, but the Durham novelist plans to maintain through the end that he was not responsible for his wife’s death.
In a memorandum outlining support for the Alford plea that Peterson is expected to enter in Durham County Superior Court on Friday, David Rudolf, the Chapel Hill attorney representing the 73-year-old one-time newspaper columnist, states up front what Peterson has maintained since the death of Kathleen Peterson in December 2001.
“Michael Peterson is innocent of the murder of Kathleen Peterson,” the memorandum filed in court on Wednesday states. “From the beginning of the investigation into Mrs. Peterson’s death, and throughout his now fifteen-year battle with the criminal justice system, Mr. Peterson has steadfastly maintained his innocence at all times.”
That continues as Peterson, facing a second trial that could lead to a lifetime prison sentence, weighs his options in the justice system, Rudolf wrote in the court document.
“He did not kill Kathleen Peterson. He did not attack Kathleen Peterson. He did not strike Kathleen Peterson,” he wrote. “He is not responsible for her death in any way.”
Given the results of the 2003 trial in which a jury found Peterson guilty of first-degree murder and subsequent revelations about key witnesses involved with the investigation, Rudolf said his client has lost faith in the justice system and the belief that law enforcement officers, prosecutors and medical examiners always search for the truth.
“[W]hat the events of the last 15 years have showed Mr. Peterson is that the criminal justice system cannot be trusted to do justice,” Rudolf wrote.
Not admitting guilt
Alford pleas are recorded as guilty pleas in which the defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges prosecutors have evidence that could lead to a jury conviction.
The memorandum does not specifically state what sentence Peterson expects, but manslaughter typically brings a sentence shorter than the eight years he has already served in prison.
Durham District Attorney Roger Echols, who inherited the case after his election in 2014, has declined to comment on the case outside the courtroom.
The Peterson case has taken a tortuous path to the hearing scheduled for Friday in front of Judge Orlando Hudson.
In 2011, Rudolf raised questions about the 2003 testimony of State Bureau of Investigation blood analyst Duane Deaver, who lost his job after a critical review of the SBI crime lab. Hudson, who presided over the 2003 trial, vacated the jury’s guilty verdict, saying that Deaver had conducted flawed tests in the case and misled the jury.
Peterson was freed from prison after eight years, first under electronic monitoring then free to go most places while awaiting a new trial.
After that, Rudolf stepped away from the case for a while, and Raleigh attorneys Mike Klinkosum and Mary Jude Darrow took over as the defense team. They raised questions last year about the preservation of evidence from the first trial, contending that it had been kept in such shoddy conditions with the potential for contamination that Peterson’s ability to get a fair trial the second go-’round had been compromised.
Hudson ruled against that theory late last year, setting a path toward trial.
But prosecutors and Peterson’s defense teams had talked all along about potential plea arrangements that might rule out the need for a retrial.
Prosecutors would not be able to use Deaver and his blood splatter analysis at a second trial, and the courts ruled post-trial that some of the evidence that prosecutors had mined from computers taken from the Petersons had not been obtained with valid search warrants.
In his 10-page memorandum supporting the plea, Rudolf contended that “misconduct by law enforcement” caused Peterson’s conviction. He called Deaver’s actions “the most obvious, and most serious misconduct” in the case.
“Given Deaver’s integral role in preparing the prosecution’s case for trial, his meetings with various witnesses, and his presence at the scene, there is no reason to trust that the evidence at the scene was not tampered with to falsely incriminate Mr. Peterson, nor is there reason to believe that the testimony of first responders and other law enforcement witnesses was not influenced by Deaver,” the plea memorandum states. “All of this alleged evidence is now suspect.”
Rudolf also raised questions about the testimony of the medical examiner at trial.
Since then, the defense team found a note written by Freda Black, who was an assistant Durham County district attorney at the 2003 trial, describing an April 8, 2003, meeting with Dr. Deborah Radisch from the state medical examiner’s office. At that meeting, according to the note, “Radisch told Black that she did not believe Kathleen Peterson died of brain trauma, and that ‘Dr. [John] Butts, [the chief medical examiner,] made her back up from her findings re blood loss ... because he did not agree.”
Not only does Rudolf argue that prosecutors withheld that information from defense attorneys who could have used it at trial to raise questions about the autopsy findings, he also contends that Radisch misled jurors by telling them that the final report reflected the conclusions she “personally” had reached.
Rudolf also raised questions about whether law enforcement officers had unduly influenced Caitlin Atwater, the daughter of Kathleen Peterson, and Candace Zamperini and Lori Campbell, sisters of Kathleen Peterson.
Through their testimony, prosecutors were able to raise questions about the Petersons’ marriage.
When Peterson was first charged, Atwater described the relationship between the Petersons as “a loving” one.
But after seeing autopsy pictures and learning more about the investigation from prosecutors, Atwater’s attitude changed, and she became a witness for prosecutors.
With no clear motive for Kathleen Peterson’s death, prosecutors built a narrative at trial of financial troubles and a relationship fractured by Michael Peterson’s attraction to gay pornography and online contact with a male escort.
“At his first trial, Mr. Peterson was convicted of beating Kathleen to death although there was no murder weapon, no credible motive or explanation of why, and no history of marital conflict, let alone domestic violence,” the plea memorandum states. “Any witness testifying for the prosecution at a retrial will be attempting to vindicate their prior testimony by securing a second wrongful conviction. It is for this reason that Mr. Peterson has agreed to enter an Alford plea despite his innocence.”