So this is how it ends, huh, one of the longest, most expensive trials in North Carolina history – not with a bang, not with a whimper, certainly not with an “OK, you got me: I did it.”
Instead, the Michael Peterson murder trial that had drawn international attention and spawned a cottage mini-industry of books, documentaries and TV specials just petered out Friday in Courtroom 7D of the new Durham County courthouse.
Don’t feel silly. I, too, thought it had ended in 2003 with a “guilty” verdict in the old courthouse, but allegations of misconduct by the prosecution – including SBI blood spatter (cough) expert Duane Deaver – gave Peterson’s defense grounds to seek and receive a vacated verdict and, ultimately, a new day in court.
That new day in court was Friday. Interest in the case that at one point had spanned the Atlantic had waned to the point that the number of reporters, photographers and cameramen equaled the number of spectators. Absent, even, were many of Mike’s Minions, Durham residents who loudly beat the drum for Peterson’s innocence throughout his first trial and during his incarceration, some even going so far as to theorize that Kathleen Peterson’s mortal wounds were inflicted by an owl.
There was, of course, no mystery to Friday’s proceedings. Both sides had already reached an agreement earlier this month that would allow Peterson to cop to voluntary manslaughter, not first-degree murder for which he was originally convicted, and skate on time served.
If Kathleen Peterson’s family came to court seeking to have some psychological wounds salved by hearing Peterson admit “I did it,” they left disappointed.
Because he entered something called an Alford plea, the dude didn’t have to confess to anything other than the possibility that he possibly could be found guilty if he were retried.
Oy. Of the Alford plea, Candace Zamperini, Kathleen’s sister, said in her victim’s impact statement, “Alford, Schmalford. ... You are pleading guilty and you will be regarded as a convicted felon forever.” She also promised that even though Peterson has been left – in her word – “indigent” from paying his legal fees, “you will be pursued” for the $25 million civil judgment her family was awarded for Kathleen’s death.
Zamperini also spoke incredulously of how Peterson’s own brother told her he “couldn’t believe that Michael Peterson had found two women dead at the bottom of the steps.” That was a reference to both Kathleen Peterson and Elizabeth Ratliff, a Michael Peterson friend who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in Germany in 1985.
Peterson’s attorney, David Rudolf, adamantly proclaimed his client’s innocence Friday, telling Judge Orlando Hudson initially that Peterson “pleads guilty pursuant to the offer” of a voluntary manslaughter conviction. “The bottom line,” Rudolf said later, “is he is not guilty, he’s not admitting that he’s guilty. ... I’d like to point out that Mr. Peterson served – unjustly, I might add – 98 months” in prison.
The only reason his client agreed to the Alford plea, Rudolf said – and Peterson repeated after court while holding forth in front of cameras and reporters – is because “he has no faith in the Durham Police Department.”
If a good compromise is defined as an agreement that leaves both parties feeling equally dissatisfied, this was it. As Peterson basked – yes, basked – in the spotlight possibly for the last time, because his 15 years of fame and infamy are over unless he finds yet another woman dead at the bottom of a stairwell, he was asked if he felt justice had been served.
“No, not at all. The most difficult thing I’ve ever done” is accepting the Alford plea, he said. “The second most difficult thing was sitting in the courtroom” during the first trial and hearing everyone lying about him, he said. He accepted the plea, he said, because “Why would I put my life in the hands of the Durham Police Department?”
As Peterson told his tale of woe, a tale of how the entire judiciary conspired to find him guilty of killing the woman he loved, a tale of how he missed family graduations, weddings, his father’s funeral, you had to remind yourself that there was another victim who missed all of those things, too, a victim who wasn’t here. Where was she?
She’s lying, as her sisters said Friday, in a grave wearing the dress and matching shoes she’d planned to wear to the Governor’s Christmas Party the day after she died in 2001.