Mike Peterson’s defense questions how well evidence has been preserved

Clay Peterson was in a familiar position on Monday as his father, Mike Peterson, was back at a defense table in a Durham County courtroom.

Mike Peterson remains accused of murder in the 2001 death of his wife, Kathleen Peterson. He was found guilty of first-degree murder in 2003, but Judge Orlando Hudson vacated that conviction in 2011 after ruling that a key prosecution witness had misled the jury.

“It has gone on forever,” Clay Peterson said during a lunch break in a hearing Monday that is part of his father’s effort to have the case dismissed. “Part of me has forgotten how long it’s been, because we’ve just been trying to live in the moment and appreciate what we have. But it really was a slap in the face this morning when Judge Hudson came back, and it just threw me right back to where we were 15 years ago. So, it’s ripping up old wounds again.”

Although the daylong court hearing had a familiar feel for the Petersons and others, much has changed for Clay in the 15 years since Kathleen, his father’s second wife, was found at the base of a stairwell in the couple’s expansive Forest Hills home.

Mike Peterson, a former Durham newspaper columnist and novelist, contended then and maintains now that he did not kill Kathleen, a Nortel employee. His first defense team contended that she accidentally tumbled down the stairs, inebriated.

Clay, 41 now and a father with a 6-year-old and 4-year-old of his own, acknowledged Monday that it was “surreal” to still be dealing with the question of his father’s innocence or guilt.

Mike Peterson’s new defense team has raised additional questions about the preservation of evidence in the case. Mary Jude Darrow, a lawyer appointed to the case after Peterson won a new trial, spent much of Monday trying to show that evidence was stored shoddily over the years – a foundation for an argument she plans to make in November for dismissal of the case.

Late last year, Darrow; Mike Klinkosum, a Raleigh attorney appointed to represent Peterson; and Jim Kendrick, a private investigator with Piedmont Investigations in Eden, went with prosecutors to review the Peterson evidence and found boxes in disarray, according to the defense.

“If you were to send this off for testing, nowhere would test this anywhere in the United States,” Kendrick said Monday.

“I’m sorry, did you actually speak to a lab about this case?” Jim Dornfried, an assistant district attorney, countered.

“No,” Kendrick responded.

“No further questions,” Dornfried told the judge.

Durham County Clerk of Court Archie L. Smith; Angie Kelly, a longtime clerk in the Durham courthouse; and several others testified Monday about the procedures and laws they followed to preserve evidence after a case had been tried.

There were more than 500 pieces of evidence in the Peterson case. After the 2003 trial, Kelly said, she stored bags of clothes, documents and other items in about eight boxes that were put in a former jail cell on the top floor of the old Durham County courthouse.

In 2013, Durham County opened a new courthouse and the boxes from the old courthouse were moved to new quarters.

In Peterson’s earlier trial, his defense team argued that the police investigation was shoddy. Prosecutors never found a murder weapon, nor did they ever present a clear motive.

After arguing in court documents filed in March that evidence bags were torn open and stored so poorly that contamination was possible, Darrow showed a box to the judge Monday.

As Hudson looked down from the bench, Darrow pulled out shoes, a T-shirt and other articles of clothing that were not sealed in envelopes or other containers that might have protected them.

Defense team members said that months ago, they found police reports from another case in one of the boxes. They also found photos of a deceased woman in a bathtub who was not Kathleen Peterson and unexplained garbage on a blue shirt at the bottom of a box.

Kelly, questioned Monday about how evidence from other cases was mingled with the Peterson evidence, said, “I have no idea.”

Hudson did not rule Monday on whether the state of the evidence was cause to dismiss the murder charge. The attorneys are set to argue for and against that in November.

The original trial, one of the longest in Durham County history, drew big media crowds and national TV coverage. The case has been featured in the documentary “The Staircase” and has been the subject of several episodes of “Dateline NBC.”

The French film crew that made the documentary was back in the courthouse Monday, filming more footage, recording sound and taking photographs for another chapter in a case that has become part of the political storyline in the North Carolina governor’s race.

The campaign of Gov. Pat McCrory, the Republican seeking re-election, issued news releases highlighting the problems of Duane Deaver, a former State Bureau of Investigation blood analyst who was a key witness for the prosecution during the 2003 trial. Deaver was forced out of his job several years ago after an independent review of the state crime lab revealed problems with some of his cases.

The McCrory campaign used Monday’s hearing to raise an issue about Roy Cooper, the state attorney general and Democrat running for governor.

“Systemic problems at Roy Cooper’s State Bureau of Investigation and crime lab continue to roil the North Carolina justice system,” McCrory’s campaign said in a news release.

Cooper’s campaign has focused on personnel changes that were made after an audit exposed problems with about 200 of 1,000 cases. His office also has pushed for more funding for the crime lab as a backlog of DNA cases grew.

As the political season winds down in November, Peterson’s defense team will wind up in preparation for the Nov. 14 hearing.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1