North Carolina

Some find his clients unsavory. But ‘The Staircase’ lawyer says he’s no villain.

David Rudolf’s world tour continued this week: stops in England, followed by others in Scotland, to discuss the most infamous case of his life. He has not grown tired of it, he said, though “after about four shows in a row, I’m a little burnt.”

Seven months have passed since Netflix released “The Staircase,” the 13-episode documentary about the Michael Peterson murder trial and its aftermath. Since then, Rudolf, 69, has become something of an international attraction. He has done about 40 shows already, with stops from Charlotte, his home, to across Europe, and 10 more are scheduled.

The tour brought an opportunity Rudolf embraced, to discuss his problems with the American criminal justice system. Yet it also meant something else. Night after night, he’d have to relive the worst defeat of his professional life.

Rudolf viewed the end result, Peterson’s freedom, as a victory. And yet Rudolf still couldn’t let go of the defeat, that in 2003 a jury found his client guilty of first-degree murder. Rudolf never took a verdict as hard, neither before nor after.

“Not even close,” he said.

The first stop took Rudolf to Durham, where everything began. More than 1,200 people, a capacity crowd, filled the Carolina Theater that night in October, and Rudolf knew many of them wanted to hear about the sensational: the unexplained wounds, the blood in the staircase and the Owl Theory, which even Rudolf dismissed at first. While he made his way on stage they applauded as if he was an entertainer.

After the trial it bothered Rudolf, long one of North Carolina’s most prominent criminal defense attorneys, that there would be a documentary that chronicled what he considered to be his greatest failure in 40 years of practicing law. The first eight episodes of “The Staircase,” directed and produced by a team of French filmmakers, came out in 2004, long before the era of Netflix streaming. The story ended with Peterson’s conviction.

Before its original release, the filmmakers invited Rudolf to Paris to see it. He watched all eight episodes in two days. The documentary, he said, left him “so (expletive) depressed.” He described the experience as “just terrible.” That was his life then, Rudolf said: “I went through about a year where I wasn’t sure exactly how I was going to do with this verdict.”

Rudolf took his seat on stage. His dark hair hadn’t grayed much since the Peterson trial. His beard, full throughout much of “The Staircase,” was now a goatee. He sounded the same: the deep voice, almost melodic, that could capture an audience, or perhaps a jury, like a preacher could a congregation. Fifteen years earlier, in a courtroom not far away, he believed he’d won Peterson’s acquittal. Then came the guilty verdict.

He knew familiar questions awaited. To some, this was just a murder mystery. And yet none of this was fiction. The owl talk could wait. “The Staircase” gave Rudolf an opening. He was here to build a different kind of case.

“To talk about a lot of things I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time,” he said.

What about all the blood?

Rudolf hoped he could inspire audiences to be skeptical and to understand how the system can fail, as he believed it failed Michael Peterson. After decades defending the accused, Rudolf wanted to prove that defense attorneys weren’t the morally-deficient characters they’re so often portrayed to be. They could be the good guys.

But what about all the blood?

It was the audience’s first question: How to explain the blood on and around Kathleen Peterson’s body at the bottom of the staircase? Rudolf’s answer began with Henry Lee, the forensic scientist who gained notoriety for his testimony in the O.J. Simpson trial.

Rudolf hired Lee to testify in the Peterson trial, and Rudolf could still recite Lee’s testimony: “Indeed, Henry said that there was too much blood there for either a fall or a beating to account for it,” Rudolf told the audience. He explained his theory, again: that blood covered Kathleen’s hair and filled her mouth and nose after a fall, and that while she struggled to move she sprayed blood all around her.

“If you know anything about scalps, and bleeding,” he said, going on, “scalps bleed excessively ...”

The words Rudolf chose played a supporting role but the ease of his delivery, the calm confidence, was the star. He had a way of making what he said sound unquestionable.

“If you know anything about scalps, and bleeding ...”

The scene at the bottom of the staircase arrives within the first six minutes of the first episode of “The Staircase,” grainy video footage with Michael Peterson’s dramatic 911 call as a voice-over. Kathleen Peterson died on Dec. 9, 2001. She died inside the mansion she shared with Michael, her husband of five years, in the Forest Hills neighborhood in Durham.

She was successful and career-focused, with a high-paying job at Nortel. He was a novelist and former freelance columnist who’d run for Durham mayor in 1999. The case became an immediate spectacle. Just as quickly, Michael Peterson became the prime suspect — the only suspect. He asked his brother Bill, an attorney, to help hire a lawyer.

“He narrowed it down to Wade Smith and David Rudolf,” Michael Peterson said recently during a rare interview inside his Durham apartment. Smith was, and remains, one of the most well-known criminal defense attorneys in North Carolina. Rudolf was younger, early 50s, and he’d recently kept Rae Carruth, the former Carolina Panthers player, from being convicted of first-degree murder in the death of his pregnant girlfriend — although Carruth was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and served nearly 19 years in prison.

Peterson described his initial impression of Rudolf like this: “Oh, I liked him. Still do. David is a unique character. My brother warned me, he said, ‘Mike, defense lawyers, criminal defense lawyers, have monumental egos. You just have to deal with that.’ He said, ‘This is just the nature of the beast.’ Tax lawyers, other lawyers, are lawyers. Criminal defense lawyers are another matter because they have people’s lives at stake. … You have to have a massive ego.”

‘Nothing else matters’

Rudolf met the prerequisite. By late 2001 he was already nationally known thanks to the Carruth case. CourtTV televised much of it. Rudolf argued the innocence of a man many presumed guilty and did it in style, with a presence that straddled the line between charismatic confidence and confrontational arrogance.

Toward the end of the trial, Rudolf questioned Van Brett Watkins. The prosecution alleged he was the hitman Carruth hired to kill Cherica Adams, his pregnant girlfriend. Watkins admitted as much. Rudolf argued Watkins killed Adams as retribution for Carruth pulling out of a drug deal. At one point, Watkins threatened Rudolf: “I could rip you like a rag doll.”

In the Peterson trial, Rudolf’s verbal sparring matches became part of the drama. “The Staircase” captured many of them: the terse interactions with Jim Hardin, the lead prosecutor; the skewering of Duane Deaver, the SBI blood spatter analyst whose testimony was later discredited; the back-and-forth the night before Rudolf’s opening statement with the poor soul who kept messing up the PowerPoint during a rehearsal.

“I am (expletive) pissed,” Rudolf said then, “because it’s 7:20 the night before my opening and you are (expletive) around with this.”

Not long ago Rudolf looked back at that moment: “I guess he was doing the best he could,” he said, “but it was a lot of tension that night.” The scene illustrated Rudolf’s impatience, and yet he said recently that “The Staircase” captured a calmer, mellower version of himself, relative to his earlier years.

David Rudolf on Carruth verdict
Inside Rudolf’s conference room, on the back wall, hangs a painting of a courtroom scene from the Carruth trial. It resembles a courtroom sketch, only in color and more detailed. Various celebrities sit in the background, watching Rudolf work. Jeff Siner

In 1997, when he was 48, Rudolf underwent double-bypass surgery after a heart attack. He’d been feeling chest pain for a while. It wasn’t because of a lack of exercise or a poor diet, he said. Rudolf attributed the heart attack to his mental state: “I was a type-A personality with anger,” he said.

Rudolf began therapy. He tried to become less angry and more tolerant.

Still, the all-consuming world of the Peterson trial offered little balance. During a trial, Rudolf said, “you’re in this incredible bubble.”

“Nothing else matters in the world, really.”

Back then he still lived in Chapel Hill, where he’d taught in the UNC School of Law for 21 years. During the trial, he rented an apartment in Durham. He shared a two-bedroom unit with his private investigator, Ron Guerette. They accumulated enough files to fill 32 bankers boxes, Rudolf said.

That was befitting of Rudolf’s preparation. Don Beskind, Rudolf’s first law partner, credited Rudolf’s success to what Beskind described as an “iron butt” — his penchant for sitting down and not moving until a job was done.

“I don’t think you can teach that,” said Beskind, who teaches at the Duke law school. “He also has a relentless and persistent quality that I don’t think can be taught.”

Rudolf’s inclination to question authority came naturally, too. He was in fifth grade, he said, when he challenged a teacher who’d confiscated a pair of his sneakers. He argued that the teacher had no right to take his property. The episode prompted his parents to have him mentally evaluated. Rudolf still keeps a copy of the psychologist’s report.

He read from it recently. The psychologist found him to be “strong-willed and intelligent” and quick to find cracks in an argument.

“Some pretty good analysis, don’t you think?” Rudolf said.

He entered adulthood during the Vietnam War, in an era of protests and outrage. The Kent State shootings, Rudolf wrote on his website, “shook me to my core.” When he graduated from Rutgers in 1971, Rudolf went to law school at NYU.

He once visited a New York City jail and what he saw he can still see: “People sort of locked up like it’s a zoo, really, banging on the bars and whistling.” It was life-changing. He took a class under Irving Younger, whose cross-examination theory guided generations of criminal defense lawyers.

What sealed Rudolf’s path came in his final year of law school. He helped an attorney build a criminal defense in a misdemeanor case. Some of the details are hazy.

“What I do remember is the feeling I had when the jury said not guilty,” Rudolf said, “and it was like, what I just did resulted in this jury saying not guilty to this person and then he was set free and it was just — that was it.”

Soon after, Rudolf began his career working for Legal Aid in the South Bronx, where he was a public defender. He accepted a teaching position at UNC in 1978, and gradually built his practice. Outside the conference room in Rudolf’s office in Charlotte, there was a large wall full of plaques and framed stories, a shrine to a career.

Inside the conference room, on the back wall, hung a painting of a courtroom scene from the Carruth trial. It looked like a courtroom sketch, only in color and more detailed. Various celebrities sat in the background, watching Rudolf work. Maybe it was true about criminal defense attorneys and their egos. And yet Rudolf didn’t want to give an impression of arrogance.

“Please don’t quote me sounding conceited,” he said at one point, “because I’m really not.

“I’m actually fairly insecure.”

‘What didn’t I see?’

For a long time after the Peterson trial, Rudolf questioned himself. He doubted his perception of the facts and his ability, Rudolf said, “to really understand what was happening in the courtroom.” Those doubts, he said, “can mess with your mind.”

In the days, weeks and months after the trial, Rudolf said he asked himself:

“What the (expletive) did I do wrong here? What — what didn’t I see? What didn’t I understand?”

“I know he was bothered by it of course,” Peterson said “… trials are about the defendant. But when you get someone like David and big-time lawyers, it’s also about them, and their egos. You know, whether they win or whether they lose. And in this case, David lost, and I know that hurt him.”

After Peterson’s conviction, Rudolf said his practice was “in shambles.” So was his personal life. Around the same time the Peterson trial ended, Rudolf’s first marriage, which lasted nearly 30 years, was crumbling toward divorce.

“Both of those things combined really upended my life in a lot of ways,” he said. He said he was “adrift.”

“It’s very, very difficult to try a case where you think you’ve put on more than enough evidence, certainly, to get an acquittal,” said Barry Scheck, one of Rudolf’s closest friends and a fellow attorney known for his work on the O.J. Simpson defense team. “You have a belief in your client’s innocence, and your client gets convicted. That’s awful.”

Defense attorney David Rudolf listens to an MP3 player during the second day of deliberations of the Michael Peterson murder trial in Durham, NC October 7, 2003. Chuck Liddy


After the Peterson trial, Rudolf lost some of that idealism. He began to rediscover it, slowly, representing Alan Gell, who’d spent nine years incarcerated, about four of them on North Carolina’s death row, for a murder he did not commit. In 2005, after the jury that heard his second trial found Gell not guilty, Gell filed a lawsuit against five North Carolina prosecutors and investigators, claiming they’d violated his civil rights by withholding evidence in his first trial.

Rudolf partnered with Scheck to represent Gell through his civil case.

After the Carruth and Peterson trials, the Gell case provided Rudolf with another change, too: For once, he wasn’t defending a client a jury might have viewed unfavorably, regardless of the evidence. Instead, representing Gell came with a built-in sense of public service.

“It lets me be the righteous person in the courtroom,” Rudolf said of wrongful conviction cases, which are now his focus.

In the spring of 2008, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation agreed to settle Gell’s case for $3.9 million. Rudolf, meanwhile, said the case “re-energized” him. So, too, did the start of a new relationship outside the courtroom.

Rudolf and Sonya Pfeiffer first met amid the drama of the Peterson trial. She covered it as a broadcast journalist for WTVD, a television station in Durham. Pfeiffer’s coverage often aired on the evening news, while Rudolf had a chance to watch. Sometimes her reporting drew Rudolf’s ire.

“My phone would ring and I would see that it was his number,” she said. “Here we go.” There were moments she’d hold the phone away from her ear, she said, “because I knew I was about to get blasted.”

At the time, Pfeiffer aspired to do in-depth investigative journalism, the kind she’d admired on “60 Minutes.” But gradually, the state of the local broadcast journalism — the lack of time, resources, or both, to do more meaningful work — wore her down. She entered law school in 2004, at age 31, hoping that a law degree could help her television career.

She and Rudolf remained in touch. She figured he could remain a source if she pursued a career as a legal analyst, that Rudolf would be good to know. When Pfeiffer and Rudolf began spending more time together she didn’t think much of it at first, she said — just two colleagues with shared interests. Besides, she was 23 years younger and he was, well — he was David Rudolf.

“It was actually my younger brother,” Pfeiffer said, “who at one point (said), like, these might be like dates, you know. Have you thought about that?”

They’ve been married for 11 years. Rudolf and Pfeiffer live in a Craftsman-style house on a quiet, tree-lined street in the historic Dilworth neighborhood in Charlotte. They have an 8-year-old daughter, Zayne, which in Hebrew (Rudolf is Jewish) means “all things beautiful.”

“She has me wrapped,” said Rudolf, who’s also the father of three grown sons from his first marriage.

A short walk from the house leads to some of the best restaurants around. Not far in the other direction is the law office Rudolf and Pfeiffer share. The Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art, a shared passion, is a short drive away. Pfeiffer is the owner and creative director, though Rudolf has long collected paintings, several of which hang in the house. In part, Rudolf said, buying and opening the gallery was about “finding other ways to express what we care about besides just fighting in court.”

“I fought in court for 40 years or more,” he said, and Pfeiffer decided to join the cause. When she graduated law school in 2007, she entered the profession full-time. She began working alongside Rudolf in 2011, and now they spend most of their work days together in their office.

Pfeiffer said yes to Rudolf, she said, in part because of his “passion and his commitment for what he does … (his) drive for something really pure and something really important, in my estimation.” Pfeiffer said she can tend to be too serious and that “there’s a lot of child” in Rudolf, what with his endearing belief, in her words, that “the system’s going to work.”

That’s why the Peterson case has stuck with Rudolf the way it has: in his mind, it proved how the system can fail.

After eight years in prison, Peterson received a new trial in 2011. A judge ruled that Duane Deaver, an SBI agent who’d been one of the state’s key witnesses, misled the jury about his expertise in blood spatter analysis.

“How does somebody like Deaver get away with this?” Rudolf asked in his office, in a prelude to one of the talking points he’d take on the road. “You know what happened to him? Nothing.” (The SBI fired Deaver in 2011 and he unsuccessfully sued to try to win his job back.)

On the road

On stage in Durham, Rudolf entertained the questions that came his way. Some were about big-picture issues affecting the criminal justice system. Some were about the so-called Owl Theory, which was mocked when Larry Pollard, an attorney who was Peterson’s neighbor, first proposed that a certain kind of owl could have attacked Kathleen Peterson, causing the head wounds that led to her death.

“From my perspective, no one will ever prove this one way or the other,” Rudolf said. “But, you know, it certainly reinforces the reasonable doubt that exists in this case.”

Rudolf hasn’t tried another first-degree murder case since the Peterson trial. Approaching 70, he’s not sure if it will be his last. He lives a life of luxury — a Tesla in the driveway; a vacation home in Park City, Utah; the time and means to pursue passions from art to skiing — and yet he doesn’t see a day when he’ll stop working.

“What keeps me going is the passion,” he said. “It’s never been about the money for me. Ever. I’ve done nicely. But it was never about the money. ... When I hear about something that’s gone really wrong for really wrong reasons, I get angry — and after these years I still get angry. So that’s really my motivator.”

On the road, Rudolf hoped to make those motivations clear. He’d long grown tired of the shady-criminal-defense attorney cliche, those depictions, he said, “presented in ways that are just incredibly offensive to anyone who’s doing what we do.” Toward the end of his show in Durham, the question came of what he’d learned over the past 15 years.

“About what?” Rudolf asked, in a deadpan way, and the audience laughed. There’d been many lessons.

“I think that I’ve learned that I don’t give up,” he said after a pause. “I sort of knew that about myself, or at least I thought that about myself, but I think that this case sort of proved to me that I don’t give up.”

Soon the show ended and the applause was loud. For a criminal defense attorney, it was a rare sight — a roomful of cheering spectators and the kind of ovation reserved for the good guys.

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