Michael Peterson entered the highly anticipated plea Friday that resolves the murder case that has lingered over him for 15 years, but neither he nor his dead wife’s family left the courthouse fully satisfied with the end of the judicial process.
Peterson, 73, claimed afterward that he was a victim, forced to seek justice on “a crooked table” where misbehaving law enforcement officers and crime scene analysts had “stacked the odds” against him.
The sisters of Kathleen Peterson, his wife of seven years, insisted that he had something to do with her death. Though they were upset that he was able to walk out of the Durham County courthouse on Friday as a free man, they were heartened that he would be a convicted felon.
Peterson insists he did not kill his wife in December 2001. Nevertheless he entered an Alford plea Friday in which he acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him of voluntary manslaughter and accepted the guilty verdict for the felony without admitting guilt.
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Kathleen Peterson, a Nortel employee, was found dead at the base of a staircase in the couple’s Durham home with blood splatter on the walls and questions of what happened that night never fully answered.
Prosecutors posed a multi-pronged theory at the three-month trial in 2003 of a crumbling marriage, financial troubles and friction between the couple because of Peterson’s bisexuality, interest in gay pornography and online contact with a male prostitute.
The jury that deliberated one of the state’s longest and most expensive criminal trials found Peterson guilty of first-degree murder, despite the defense team’s attempts to discredit the police investigation at the time.
Though Peterson was sentenced to life in prison, he was freed in 2011 after Judge Orlando Hudson vacated the verdict because of problems revealed in 2010 about the lab work of State Bureau of Investigation blood analyst Duane Deaver, a key witness in the case.
In the five-plus years since that ruling, Peterson tried unsuccessfully to have the murder charges dismissed against him.
The case is one that has raised questions about Durham police investigations and SBI crime lab procedures for reporting test results not always favorable to prosecutors.
It was not until this month, though, that David Rudolf, an original member of his defense team, announced that prosecutors and Peterson had negotiated a plea arrangement that both sides could live with.
“It has always been, and remains today, the State’s position that Michael Peterson is responsible for the death of Kathleen Peterson,” Durham District Attorney Roger Echols said in a prepared statement after the Friday hearing. “[Prosecutors] decided to enter into this plea agreement after conducting an extensive review of the physical and testimonial evidence. It is clear that some evidence that was admitted during the 2003 trial may no longer be available or deemed admissible at a second trial. This decision was made after careful consideration and in consultation with the family of Kathleen Peterson.
“It is my sincere hope that the final disposition of this case provides a measure of justice as they continue to honor Kathleen’s memory.”
Hudson accepted the plea after asking Peterson a series of questions to which the Durham novelist and one-time newspaper columnist responded “yes” or “no.”
The sentence he handed down was for less than the eight years Peterson had already spent in prison. The newly convicted felon got back his passport that courthouse clerks had held while the murder charge hung over him.
He’s entering this plea because it is 15 years. He served eight years for a crime he did not commit. He’s 73 years old, and he has no faith in Durham law enforcement being interested in the truth as opposed to being interested in convicting him and twisting evidence to that purpose.
David Rudolf, Michael Peterson’s attorney
Peterson walked out of the courthouse with plans to travel out of state to visit his two sons, grandchildren, two brothers and the daughters of Elizabeth Ratliff, a woman he knew in Germany who was also found dead at the base of a staircase.
But first, Kathleen’s sisters had words for Peterson and others involved with the case at the stage of the hearing when victims have an opportunity to offer impact statements to the judge.
“It’s great that Michael Peterson finally acknowledges in court that there is enough evidence to convict him,” Lori Campbell said as she looked at her former brother-in-law. “Yet it’s wrong that after a jury sentenced him to life in prison for the murder of his wife that he gets to be a free man while Kathleen lies in her grave. Closure is for a door, not for my murdered sister.”
It’s wrong that after a jury sentenced him to life in prison for the murder of his wife that he gets to be a free man while Kathleen lies in her grave. Closure is for a door, not for my murdered sister.
Lori Campbell, Kathleen Peterson’s sister
Candace Zamperini, the other sister, had much more to say in an emotional and forceful statement that included how much she missed her sister and hearing her plans for elaborate parties or recipe sharing.
Zamperini recalled the phone call she received from Peterson informing her of her sister’s death and telling her Kathleen had fallen down the stairs.
But not long after that, Zamperini began to question that story. Autopsy and crime scene photos, she said, “opened a Pandora’s box” filled with “doubt and anger.” The additional news of Ratliff’s death, and the coincidence of the staircase, made her even more suspicious of the initial story.
“All the evils of my sister’s death leaped into my eyes,” Zamperini said. “The horrors of my sister’s beating were home.”
Zamperini had harsh comments for Rudolf as well as the French documentary crew that had open access to Peterson and his meetings with lawyers from the early days and continued to follow the case through its many iterations. Their eight-part documentary, “The Staircase,” details the many iterations of the case.
Zamperini told Peterson that she was not impressed with his claims of innocence by entering the Alford plea.
“The words Alford plea, they’re meaningless. Alford, Schmalford, means nothing. It means guilty,” Zamperini said. “It means nothing. It means guilt. ...You are pleading to voluntary manslaughter. You will be treated as guilty for murdering my sister Kathleen, and you will be a convicted felon forever. This hearing today is as close to justice as anything that I think can be found.”
Zamperini closed with words for Peterson, telling him that not only could he now wear the scarlet letter “A” for adultery, but he could also bear “the black letter, ‘G,’ for guilty.”
“Not perfect justice,” Zamperini said before sitting down. “But justice.”
Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen Peterson’s daughter from a different marriage, attended the hearing, but entered and left the courtroom without making any comment.
Atwater, the mother of twins who won a $25 million judgment in a wrongful death suit against her former stepfather, initially supported Michael Peterson as a loving husband to her mom. Over time that advocacy waned and she became a witness for the prosecution.
A family that had celebrated holidays together left the Durham courthouse on Friday on different paths with the legal process behind them and an uncertain future ahead.