Standing in front of the jury, District Attorney Jim Hardin popped open a plastic bag, reached in and pulled out a long brass pipe with a short hook on the end. Blows from such a pipe, he said Tuesday, killed Kathleen Peterson.
"They said it's an accident, a fall down the stairs, and we say it's not," Hardin said. "We say it's murder."
At last, after 18 months of investigating and arguing, the time had come for the prosecution to begin its case against the man who it says committed murder on Dec. 9, 2001 -- Michael Peterson, Durham novelist, arts patron, onetime candidate for mayor and Kathleen's husband. She was found in a back staircase in the couple's 11,000-square-foot house in the Forest Hills neighborhood.
Hardin told the jury of eight women and four men to be watchful because they will hear about a storybook marriage, but "appearances can be deceiving."
Outside the Durham County courthouse, under leaden skies, TV trucks and cameras established beachheads early in the morning for the first day of trial evidence. Inside Superior Courtroom No. 1, every seat filled 45 minutes before the 9:30 a.m. start. Finally, the sheriff's deputy called out, "O-yez, O-yez, O-yez," and everyone stood for Judge Orlando Hudson, who then seated the jury.
To begin a trial, lawyers may make opening statements to the jury. They are not evidence, but a sampler of what they say they will present. Neither Hardin nor Peterson's attorney David Rudolf of Chapel Hill went into great detail Tuesday. But they tossed out tantalizing hints of what was to come. Rudolf, for his part, would offer an expert's explanation of how Kathleen's death was an accident.
Hardin's opening ace was his revelation of a possible murder weapon. The brass pole, called a blow poke, is about 4 feet long . The blow poke Hardin held before the jury actually belongs to Kathleen's sister. But Hardin said the one Kathleen owned disappeared immediately after her death.
Hardin hefted the blow poke in his right hand, then brought the shaft down into his left -- tap, tap, tap.
"This case is all about things not appearing as they seem," he said.
The paramedics on the scene, Hardin said, will report on the vast amounts of blood they saw in the house, especially in the back staircase. He held up a photograph of the woman, splayed on her back, and he said, "The blood was on Kathleen, under Kathleen, beside Kathleen."
Blood was found on the staircase walls. Some of it was as much as 6 feet above her, Hardin said.
He promised another piece of unexpected evidence: An SBI agent would tell the jury about Michael Peterson's bloody shoe print on Kathleen's lower leg, the calf.
As Hardin spoke, Kathleen's college-age daughter, Caitlin, wept quietly. Her family patted her shoulders and slipped her tissues.
In all his 24 minutes speaking to the jury, Hardin never mentioned what he once had called a critical element of his case: Elizabeth Ratliff. The family friend from Peterson's days in Germany was found dead in November 1985 at the foot of her staircase. Hardin said later that because Hudson has not decided whether to allow the Ratliff matter in Peterson's trial, he said nothing, for now.
Instead, he kept the focus of his story in Durham. He reminded the jurors that when they were undergoing the questioning before being chosen, the defense said it would counter the state's evidence with its own experts. But Hardin told them to remember the blood.
"Mr. Rudolf said during jury selection that this case was all about the forensics," Hardin said. "I couldn't disagree more. I think it's all about the exercise of your reason and common sense. ... When you get right down to it, it's about her. Please remember, it's ultimately about her."
Rudolf then arose, took several strides toward the witness stand and, without a word, tapped a stylus on a computer touch screen. Suddenly, the courtroom filled with Peterson's frightened call to 911. Peterson, seated at the defense table, wept. Rudolf's partner, Thomas Maher, rubbed Peterson's back to comfort him.
For an hour and 20 minutes, Rudolf gave the jury an explanation for everything that happened that night, starting with: Murder was unthinkable because the Petersons loved each other. Theirs, he said, "was a love that absolutely everyone who saw them or knew them recognized -- and envied."
Kathleen fell on the staircase and died, Rudolf said. On the projection screen directly across the courtroom from the jury, Rudolf showed a stop-action animation of how one of his experts says Kathleen fell backward on the steps, cracked her scalp on a door molding, fell to the landing, cut her head again on the floor molding, got up and slipped, cutting her head once more on the corner of the staircase.
Rudolf repeated his long-standing accusation that the Durham police bungled the death scene investigation by allowing people into the house, then decided to "get" Peterson for his columns in The Herald-Sun in the late 1990s that accused police of incompetence.
"The police had reason to think the worst," he said. "Mike Peterson had been critical of the police for years. "
Peterson, who had impassively listened to Hardin's statement, fidgeted during Rudolf's, taking off his glasses, putting them on again, breathing through his mouth, adjusting his position in his chair.
Rudolf brushed away the possibility of a blow poke as a murder weapon, since 30 police officers who searched the house in the days after Kathleen's death found nothing that could have been a weapon. If an emotionally devastated husband had the presence of mind to dispose of a weapon, Rudolf asked with a drop of sarcasm, "Where did he get rid of it, and when?"
Further, Rudolf said, the SBI could not recreate anything like the blood spatter pattern in the stairwell. He showed the jury a videotape of SBI agents smashing a mannequin's head into a mock-up of the stairway and bludgeoning a huge sponge full of blood with the blow poke. The amount of blood from the test was far less than what was present around Kathleen Peterson's body.
Rudolf reminded jurors about Ratliff's death and the fact that Hardin did not mention it. Given that the prosecution knew about Ratliff since Peterson's arrest, Rudolf said he found it strange that Ratliff's new autopsy had not been performed until a month before jury selection, guaranteeing a barrage of negative publicity for his client at a critical point.
But Rudolf promised that he would show that what happened was a "tragic accident." Try to imagine, he asked the jury, what kind of man could kill his soul mate.
Prosecutors "have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mike Peterson took something like this" -- and, standing at Hardin's table, he picked up the blow poke in his right hand, lifting it as if to strike -- "and beat her to death."
Behind Rudolf on the projection screen, a blown-up photograph of a laughing Kathleen on Michael's lap appeared. Remember, Rudolf said, "the happiness she felt with him and he felt with her."
After the lunch break, Hardin called as his first witness someone who could take the jury out of the realm of photographs and projected images and give them a firsthand picture of the death scene.
Paramedic Jay Rose discovered early that he enjoyed the life of an emergency worker; he started with the American Red Cross when he was 15. After study at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, he came back to North Carolina and joined the Durham County service two years ago.
Wearing a crisp navy-blue uniform, Rose said that he has seen 30 or 40 falls and, "The most you get in a fall is a broken bone. The worst I've seen is a broken neck."
Yes, he told Hardin, he remembered hearing the call from 1810 Cedar St . He and his partner arrived there in five minutes.
He found the front door wide open, with blood on it. As he moved through the house, almost everywhere he looked, he found "blood spatter," "an enormous amount of blood" and "an unusual amount of blood than we see in a fall." Some of it, on the staircase walls and the steps, was dry to the touch, and the blood on the back of Kathleen's head had clotted. Blood had soaked through a towel that someone had put under her head.
Hardin asked whether Peterson gave the paramedics any information while they worked on his wife.
"I was trying to ask Mr. Peterson that, and" -- Rose paused -- "he was unwilling or unable to help us." Peterson did not even provide them with his wife's date of birth; all he told them of the circumstances, Rose said, was that he "went outside to turn out the lights, and she fell down the stairs."
Then Hardin asked whether Rose smelled alcohol on Peterson .
"All I could smell was blood," he said. "It's hard for me to get past that. Once there's the smell of blood, once that smell gets in my nose, I can't smell anything."
The trial adjourned at 2:30 p.m .
Staff writers Demorris Lee and Craig Jarvis contributed to this report.
Durham District Attorney Jim Hardin displays a picture of Kathleen Peterson during opening statements.
SUMMARY: Opening statements painted opposite images of Mike Peterson: To prosecutors, he is a man who beat his wife to death for money and claimed that she fell. To the defense, he is a devoted husband devastated by his wife's accidental death and persecuted by police bent on revenge for Peterson's critical newspaper columns. The prosecution put on its first witness, paramedic Jay Rose, who said he had never seen so much blood from the victim of a fall.
SURPRISES: For the first time, prosecutors revealed what they believe is the murder weapon -- a fireplace implement called a "blow poke."
QUOTABLE: District Attorney Jim Hardin: "This case is about pretense and appearances. It's about things not being as they seem."
COMING UP: Defense cross-examination of Rose.
A FIRE TOOL
A blow poke, also called a fire lance, is a fireplace tool designed to serve as both a poker and a bellow. The harpoon-like hook on the end can adjust logs, while the pole itself is hollow and designed to allow someone to blow through it to stoke the flames. According to The Virginia Brass Co. of McLean, Va., the tool was inspired by a U.S. soldier during World War II who kept warm during the Battle of the Bulge by blowing through the unscrewed barrel of his rifle to restart fires.
RESEARCH BY BROOKE CAIN