Michael Peterson pleads guilty to manslaughter, victim’s family reacts
When Mike Peterson enters a Durham courtroom Friday morning to resolve murder charges that have hung over him for 15 years, it might have a feel of stepping back in time.
Judge Orlando Hudson, who has presided over the legal proceedings related to the high-profile murder case, will be at the bench.
David Rudolf, the lead defense attorney at the 2003 trial, will be back at the defense table.
Peterson continues to maintain that he had nothing to do with the death of his wife, Kathleen, in their Durham home in 2001. Many of his key supporters and advocates remain by his side.
But despite the familiar theme, much has changed since Peterson, a Durham novelist and former newspaper columnist, was charged with murder in 2001.
Prosecutors have come and gone. Some have moved on to different jobs in the legal profession. Others have been forced out for misconduct.
The Peterson family, once huddled together around Mike and Kathleen Peterson, has spread out across the country on professional paths, and in some cases, starting families of their own.
The case, and the many lingering questions about the police investigation, the fate of Kathleen Peterson and whether justice can be found in the criminal justice system, is at the core of a French film crew’s six-plus hour documentary, “The Staircase,” and multiple TV productions.
With Peterson maintaining his innocence even as he plans to enter an Alford plea, in which he accepts a manslaughter conviction without admitting guilt, many alternate theories about what happened have grown up around the case.
Defense attorneys have posed the possibility that an inebriated Kathleen Peterson stumbled to her death down a staircase. They have talked about possible intruders going into the home to retaliate against Mike Peterson, who wrote columns critical of the police and Durham in the late 1990s. One lawyer and neighbor even suggested that Kathleen Peterson might have died from an owl attack.
Some insist Peterson not only killed his wife, but also was responsible for the death of Elizabeth Ratliff, a friend and neighbor of Mike Peterson’s in Germany who was found dead at the base of a staircase with injuries to her head. Though German police and military police initially found that she died from a cerebral hemorrhage, her death was reinvestigated after Kathleen Peterson’s death and ruled a homicide by American medical examiners.
Ratliff’s daughters, Martha and Margaret, were raised by Peterson after he gained custody of them. Both daughters have moved out West and have professional careers. Martha lives in Colorado and Margaret lives in California, according to Rudolf, but did not want to share further details of their lives over the past 15 years.
Mike Peterson’s son Clay Peterson, who lives in Maryland, has come to some of his father’s hearings in recent years. In August, the then-41-year-old father of two young children said it was “surreal” to still be dealing with questions of his father’s guilt or innocence.
Another son, Todd Peterson, lives in Tennessee, according to Rudolf.
Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen Peterson’s daughter from a different marriage who initially supported Mike Peterson but changed her position by the 2003 trial, lives in Northern Virginia, according to prosecutors.
Kathleen Peterson’s sister, Candace Zamperini, is expected to be at the hearing Friday as the case is resolved in what she described to columnist Tom Gasporoli as “not perfect justice” but justice nonetheless.
A brief look at what’s become of others in the case:
The district attorney who led the prosecution of Mike Peterson was Durham’s top prosecutor from 1994 until 2005, when Mike Easley, the governor at the time, appointed him a Superior Court judge.
Hardin spent about nine months as a special Superior Court judge before taking a brief leave to serve with the U.S. Army Central Command during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He served as staff judge advocate for the 81st Regional Readiness Command of the U.S. Army Reserve, then returned to Durham.
In summer 2007, Hardin was appointed by Easley to take over temporarily as the Durham D.A. after Mike Nifong, his successor, was disbarred after the Duke lacrosse scandal and forced to resign. Hardin conducted a review of the office, at Easley’s direction, then returned to the bench. Hardin, a Durham County Superior Court judge now, was elected to an eight-year term in 2010.
As an assistant district attorney on the case, Black is perhaps best remembered for her closing arguments, delivered in a molasses-thick Southern accent. Prosecutors, with no clear motive or murder weapon at the 2003 trial, focused on information mined from the Peterson computers showing the novelist’s contact with “Soldier Top Brad,” an ex-enlisted man who worked as a prostitute, and a stash of gay porn.
Prosecutors argued to the jury that Kathleen Peterson, a Nortel employee, was unaware of her husband’s bisexuality until she discovered the pornography and emails between her spouse of seven years and the prostitute. Peterson, his sons and brother countered that Kathleen Peterson knew about his bisexuality.
“We’re not dealing with the average individual over here,” Black said during closing arguments at the end of the protracted trial. “We’re dealing with a fictional writer … a person who knows how to create a fictional plot … And then there’s Brad … People like Brad … Do you really believe that [Kathleen Peterson] knew? … Does that make common sense to you?” She memorably described the pornography as “Pure-T filth.”
To watch Black’s closing arguments fast-forward to the about 16-minute mark of this segment of “The Staircase” documentary.
Since the trial, Black ran two unsuccessful campaigns for Durham district attorney, in 2006 and 2008. In 2010, she ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Durham district court bench.
Twice since 2012, Black has faced driving while impaired charges in Durham and Orange County. Her 2012 arrest warrant showed she was working at the Durham Cleaners then.
Saacks was an assistant district attorney who presented some of the arguments about the Petersons having financial troubles.
Saacks has been a prosecutor in the Wake County District Attorney’s Office since spring 2010, but he served briefly as interim district attorney in Durham after Nifong was disbarred in 2007. He served as the county’s top prosecutor until January 2009, when Tracey Cline, who was elected to the office, was sworn in.
Saacks was at the helm of the D.A.’s office in 2008 when two attorneys – Jason J. Anthony and J. Burkhardt Beale – tried to win a new trial for Peterson by claiming that prosecutors withheld evidence of a tire iron recovered from the yard of one of Peterson’s neighbors during the trial. The neighbor found the tire iron in his yard several days after Kathleen Peterson’s death and called police about it several weeks after that.
Investigators told the neighbor they “did not think” the tire iron was the murder weapon but said they would come to his home and take a look, according to notes uncovered in one of the 30 boxes of case evidence stored in the Durham County courthouse.
It was not until August 2003, when the trial was coming to a close, that a Durham police officer retrieved the tire iron, the lawyers claimed in their failed motion to win Peterson a new trial.
Saacks said at the time that investigators tested it as a possible murder weapon, but ruled it out as the instrument that killed Kathleen Peterson.
Seven months after Cline was sworn in to office, Larry Pollard, a Durham attorney and neighbor of the Petersons, filed a motion in Durham County Superior Court seeking a new trial based on one of the more unusual theories of how Kathleen Peterson died – the owl theory.
Pollard used hair analysis test results and autopsy reports showing scalp wounds to propose that Kathleen Peterson could have been struck on top of her head by an owl outside her Durham home, stumbled to the ground and died inside from the wounds after spreading blood on the walls of the stairwell.
That motion for appropriate relief was withdrawn without a hearing on the matter.
Cline was at the helm of the Durham prosecutor’s office in 2011 when Hudson, the judge, vacated the 2003 guilty verdict against Peterson.
Cline announced plans to appeal, but was ousted from office in March 2012 after an unusual proceeding in which a judge found she made statements with malice and reckless disregard for the truth against Hudson.
Her stridently worded comments were in court documents that came after a 2011 investigative series in The News & Observer: “Twisted Truth: A Prosecutor Under Fire.” Cline contended then that Hudson was working in league with the newspaper to “demean the district attorney at all costs.”
In June 2015, the N.C. State Bar issued a five-year suspension of Cline’s law license for violating professional conduct rules related to the Hudson comment.
Duane Deaver, who conducted blood splatter analysis for the State Bureau of Investigation in the Peterson case, had a crime-scene investigation career that spanned nearly 25 years.
But in 2011, Deaver was fired from the bureau after a series of messy court cases, including the exoneration of Greg Taylor, who spent 19 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. Deaver failed to report the result of blood tests that would have been helpful to Taylor.
In 2011, Hudson ruled that Deaver misled the jury in the Peterson case, one of the reasons cited for vacating the murder verdict.
Deaver’s attorneys challenged the firing. They described him as a scapegoat for the SBI, which was under legislative and public scrutiny for the crime lab’s policies and procedures.
In 2014, the N.C. Human Resources Commission ruled that the SBI was justified in firing Deaver because of the judge’s findings in the Peterson case, but not for the initial reasons put forward by the bureau. The commission ruled that Deaver should get back pay for an 18-month period after Hudson’s ruling in the Peterson case and the state Appeals Court ruling that upheld it.