Barry Saunders

Will justice be served in the Michael Peterson case? – Saunders

So shoot me. The year is only six weeks old, and here I am referencing F. Scott Fitzgerald for the second time. I promise to be more judicious in citing my favorite sauced novelist henceforth, but the dude was so, so wrong about there being no second acts in American life.

Say you’ve got enough money or notoriety, you can get a second act – or at least a second trial. Or maybe, just maybe, you get to skate without a second trial.

That possibility exists for novelist and former newspaper columnist Michael Peterson, who in 2003 was convicted of first-degree murder in the 2001 death of his wife in a Durham trial that has become a cottage industry for authors, TV shows and documentarians. Despite the unequivocal verdict, Peterson hasn’t served all of the time since 2003 behind bars. He’s been out on appeal since 2011, chilling, professing his innocence, goosing a beloved columnist – me.

Mum’s the word on any potential plea deal details, but I’m giving even money that once home slice walks out of a hearing Feb. 24, he won’t set foot back inside a prison unless it’s to interview for his next book or column some of the friends he made while locked up.

My calls to Kathleen Peterson’s sister, Candace Zamperini, were unreturned. In a statement to a WRAL TV reporter, she gave a hint of what a possible plea deal entails:

“For over 15 years Michael Peterson has professed his false innocence. The family of Kathleen Peterson is awaiting his plea of guilt for the horrific beating that ended Kathleen’s life.

“Michael Peterson will forever be treated as guilty and a convicted felon.”

If she knows something we don’t know – and it’s inconceivable the state would make a deal without the family’s input – then the only real doubt is over whether he will plead guilty to second-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter. If it’s the former, he may yet have to pull a couple more years before reaching the mandatory minimum set forth by the state.

If, however, he’s able to cop to voluntary manslaughter – for which the mandatory minimum is a mere 20 to 25 months! – he’s already done that much and will skate with the most beautiful words any convict has ever heard: time served.

Unless you buy the hoot of a theory put forth by some of his supporters that an owl was responsible for the mortal injuries Kathleen Peterson suffered, then a “horrific beating” occurred in that stairwell of the stately Peterson mansion on Durham’s Cedar Street.

If he gets out without doing the sentence to which he was sentenced because the state fears putting its discredited blood spatter expert, Duane Deaver, back on the stand to be cross-examined, then that crime will have been compounded with a travesty.

Either way, the state owes an apology – either to the people of North Carolina for putting so much trust in the testimony of an incompetent or worse SBI expert, to Kathleen Peterson’s family for making it possible for a guilty man to go free, or to Michael Peterson for taking eight years of his liberty and besmirching him with the un-wash-off-able taint of guilt.

Peterson wrote to me once since his release on appeal and, showing that his acerbic wit was still intact, facetiously noted that “we have much in common – our jail time (which you’re always bragging about – one overnight as I recall ... to my 3,000”).

Oh, how I wish it had only been one night. Even had it been, I told Peterson, one night is too many when you’re innocent – which I was every single time I’ve been arrested.

Three thousand nights are too few if you’re guilty of killing your wife.

I suspect the state, wary of having former star witness Deaver cross-examined by a first-year law school grad – much less noted barrister David Rudolf – wants to avoid a courtroom the way a snail wants to avoid an overturned salt shaker. Deaver’s so-called expert testimony was, ultimately, dismissed as junk science, no more reliable than reading the entrails of chitlins left out too long in the sun.

What was the first Fitzgerald quote I used this year?

“The rich are different from you and me.”

Yep, they get sweet plea deals.

Barry Saunders: 919-836-2811, @BarrySaunders9

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