Mike Peterson might have walked out of the Durham County courthouse in February thinking the 16-year murder case he had just resolved with a plea would rest in his past.
But the 73-year-old Durham novelist who agreed before a Durham County judge on Feb. 24 that police had amassed enough evidence to convict him of voluntary manslaughter without accepting guilt has not put all of his legal troubles behind him.
On Thursday, Durham lawyer Jay Trehy filed a complaint in Durham County Superior Court that essentially keeps alive a judgment entered on Jan. 28, 2008, in which a judge awarded Caitlin Atwater Clark, Kathleen Peterson’s daughter, $25 million in a wrongful death case.
With interest accumulated since then, Peterson now owes Clark another $30 million, Trehy stated in the complaint.
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But for years, Peterson has claimed not to have any money.
Trehy said to keep the 2008 judgment against Peterson from lapsing, he has to file new documents in court every 10 years.
“I don’t think he has any money,” Trehy said. “The idea is twofold. One is to disincentivize any effort to profit off this case.”
Trehy said if Peterson were to try to write a book that makes money for him, as he has sometimes said he might do, or if he were to direct that someone else receives the money for it, “we would swoop in and stop it.”
“We want to keep him from ever profiting off this murder,” Trehy said.
Trehy also filed a request to have evidence from the closed case turned over to his client so Peterson or any of his supporters could not ask to have it destroyed and then return to court with claims that the judgment for Clark should be abandoned.
Trehy said the court could enter the judgments he asked for without Peterson having to return to the courthouse he left in February, still claiming that he had not killed Kathleen Peterson in December 2001.
But the family of his wife, a former Nortel employee he had married seven years prior to her death, were not persuaded that Peterson had simply entered the so-called Alford plea because he claimed he had to play on a “crooked table” tilted by misbehaving police and crime scene analysts who “had stacked the odds” against him.
“The words Alford plea, they’re meaningless. Alford, Schmalford, means nothing. It means guilty,” Candace Zamperini, Kathleen Peterson’s sister, said at the plea hearing in February. “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.”
The Peterson 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, has been at the core of a French film crew’s six-plus hour documentary, “The Staircase,” and multiple TV productions.
More recently, BBC Radio’s 5 Live program released a podcast this summer about Kathleen’s death, the subsequent trial, the conviction that was overturned and the recent plea hearing.
The podcast, called “Beyond Reasonable Doubt?”, is reported by BBC Radio’s Chris Warburton, who spent time in Durham interviewing people involved with the case, including friends and neighbors. Joe Neff, a reporter for The News & Observer, is among those featured on the podcast. Tom Gasparoli, a former (Durham) Herald-Sun columnist who contributes to The News & Observer, is also interviewed extensively.
The case also was the inspiration for the 2017 NBC sitcom “Trial & Error” starring John Lithgow.
Clark, Kathleen Peterson’s daughter from a different marriage, attended the plea hearing in February, but entered and left the courtroom without making any comment.
The mother of twins now, she initially supported Michael Peterson as a loving husband to her mom. Over time that advocacy waned and she became a witness for the prosecution.