A grand jury indicted novelist, columnist and former mayoral candidate Mike Peterson on a first-degree murder charge Thursday after hearing testimony that his wife, Kathleen Peterson, died of blows to the head and not from an accidental fall down stairs in their home.
District Attorney Jim Hardin filed a motion shortly afterward, saying he wanted to seek the death penalty should Peterson be convicted.
Peterson, 58, turned himself in at the Durham County jail and, on arrival, spoke publicly for the first time since his wife died Dec. 9. He maintained his innocence.
"I've whispered her name more than 1,000 times, and I can't stop crying," Peterson said, surrounded by his two sons, two daughters, a brother and a throng of reporters outside the jail. "I would have never done anything to hurt her. I am innocent of these charges and can't wait to prove it in court."
Accompanied by police homicide investigator Arthur H. Holland, Peterson carried a pair of tennis shoes and a burgundy Bible into the jail, was fingerprinted and heard the charges read to him by a magistrate. He was held without bail pending a hearing at 2:30 p.m. today in front of Superior Court Judge Ronald L. Stephens.
Peterson's defense team, led by prominent Chapel Hill lawyer David Rudolf, filed a 20-page brief Thursday afternoon spelling out their case --that Kathleen Peterson, his wife of four years, fell down the stairs or was hit by an intruder.
"If in fact someone struck Mrs. Peterson, as the police seem to believe, it is far more likely to have been an intruder than Michael Peterson," said the brief, which seeks his release on bail.
Rudolf contended in the brief that Peterson has strong ties to the community and isn't a flight risk. He asked that a property bond, which allows property instead of cash to be posted, be set at $1 million and said a friend and neighbor, former U.S. Rep. Nick Galifianakis, has agreed to serve as a third-party custodian if bail is granted to make sure he doesn't flee. Peterson also is willing to be subjected to curfews, house arrest or any other limitations the court chooses pending trial, his attorneys said.
Hardin said Thursday that he will object to any release on bail. The judge is permitted but not required to authorize release in a capital case.
The bond hearing will be the first opportunity for the public to learn what other evidence the prosecution has against Peterson. Under the law, Hardin doesn't have to tip his hand, only show enough to argue there's a strong likelihood of conviction and flight.
Kathleen Peterson, 48, a Nortel Networks executive who was active in the Durham arts community, was pronounced dead shortly after her husband called 911 at 2:43 a.m. to report he had found her injured at the bottom of a long staircase inside their Forest Hills mansion.
Dr. Deborah Radisch, an associate state medical examiner who performed the autopsy, testified Thursday during the grand jury session that the injuries weren't consistent with a fall down stairs.
"They were caused by some sort of blunt object," she said in an interview afterward. "We don't usually see multiple injuries of that kind of severity in a fall down the steps."
Radisch said Kathleen Peterson was wearing a sweatsuit and did not have skin under her fingernails that would suggest a struggle. She declined to say whether the cuts and bruises on her arms and upper body indicated a struggle.
An autopsy showed that Kathleen Peterson died of severe injuries to the back of her head. Before calling the investigation into her death a murder probe, police said the death was suspicious because of the large amount of blood at the scene, on the front door, on a sidewalk and on Mike Peterson.
Peterson is a decorated Vietnam war veteran whose novels draw from his experience during the war. He was a columnist for The Herald-Sun and often has been critical of the Durham police department, and he ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1999 vowing to crack down on crime and clean up city government. He also unsuccessfully ran this year for the City Council.
The grand jury returned an indictment after hearing evidence from three witnesses -- Radisch, Holland and Special Agent Duane Deaver of the State Bureau of Investigation. The rare special session lasted from 9:30 a.m. to about 2 p.m.
Thomas K. Maher, one of Peterson's attorneys, questioned the need for Hardin to call a special session of the grand jury, which wasn't scheduled to meet again until January.
"It wasn't a case where they went to the crime scene and our client wasn't there," he said. "Have they given the evidence thoughtful examination instead of rushing to indict our client? It baffles me, the need to push this through a grand jury so quickly."
Hardin said the lawyers can't have it both ways.
"It's interesting that they say they want the matter to be resolved as quickly as possible and then they are surprised when we take the steps to move things along quickly," he said. "The public is interested in Kathleen's death, and it compels this action."
In cases involving high-profile or popular suspects, it's politically more palatable for police and prosecutors to send matters to a grand jury instead of filing charges.
"It would take the political heat off the district attorney or police," Rudolf said.
Durham Police Chief Teresa Chambers said that the case wasn't handled differently from other cases and that police worked very closely with the District Attorney's Office from the beginning.
"Unfortunately, in the Peterson case, because it's high profile, it gets looked at more closely," Chambers said. "But that happens on other serious cases. We defer to Mr. Hardin."
Hardin, who plans to prosecute the case himself, said he wouldn't have gone to a grand jury without enough evidence to get a conviction.
The defense that Peterson's attorneys began to lay out Thursday accuses police of botching the investigation by not seizing important evidence during the initial search and having to return to confiscate items they left behind.
During the police investigation, police searched the 14-room, 3-acre estate on Dec. 9 and 10, gathering a used condom, semen from Kathleen Peterson's bed, bloody hair from a Diet Coke can, a knife, a wine bottle and wine glass, and many other items.
Police seized evidence including hair and bodily fluids from Kathleen Peterson's body at the funeral home Dec. 11 and returned to the Peterson home Dec. 12 to focus on the staircase, taking hair, staples, Christmas tree needles and evidence of blood. They also confiscated three computers, a paperweight, condoms inside a bookcase and other items. Last Friday, police obtained phone records for the couple's home phone and three cellular phones to determine what calls were made between Nov. 26 and Dec. 12, and their duration.
Peterson's attorney also said the couple's home was broken into several times.
"Just last June, the Peterson house, which was rarely locked, was entered sometime after midnight while Kathleen Peterson was asleep in her bedroom and Michael and Todd [a son] were in a room at one side of the house," the brief said.
Galifianakis, 73, a lawyer for 44 years who lives in Forest Hills and has represented both Petersons in business dealings, said that he thinks Mike Peterson is innocent and that many neighbors are in disbelief.
"They thought that couple to be so well matched to each other, and almost in a Camelot setting," he said. "Camelot, in its best sense, is everything was just right, everything is ideal."
Mike Peterson's brother, Bill, speaking on behalf of the family, said outside the Durham jail Thursday that his brother is innocent.
"We are utterly and completely grief stricken about Kathleen's death and have not had an opportunity to grieve," he said. "My brother had nothing to with this terrible incident. We believe that my brother is innocent and it was a terrible accident."
Staff writer J. Andrew Curliss contributed to this report.