The good that came from the Peterson case

Michael Peterson listens as his attorney David Rudolf speaks during his plea hearing at the Durham County Courthouse in Durham on Feb. 24.
Michael Peterson listens as his attorney David Rudolf speaks during his plea hearing at the Durham County Courthouse in Durham on Feb. 24. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Nothing is so clear about the Michael Peterson case as the power of money.

More than 15 years ago, when he had resources, Peterson hired a passel of North Carolina’s smartest advocates. In building a legal defense, the team brought on the best forensic experts in the country. Every court hearing made war on the state’s proposition that in the early hours of Dec. 9, 2001, at the foot of a staircase of his Durham mansion, Peterson beat his wife Kathleen to death.

Peterson was a writer whose Vietnam War novel did well enough to allow Peterson to live in an 11,000-square-foot mansion on Cedar Street. Later, he ran for mayor of Durham and lost, but he developed a tooth for the political arena. He wrote newspaper columns berating Durham police as bigoted and corrupt. In the year before his wife’s untimely end, Peterson ran for Durham city council on the platform of cracking down on the cops. He lost. Wouldn’t you know it, on that morning a month later when Peterson finally made a gasping call to 9-1-1 about his wife, who should respond to the mansion on Cedar Street but Durham police.

Now, most any other man in this situation – the last to see his wife alive in their home when she dies from more than half a dozen tearing lacerations to the head that cut to the skull – can expect to wave his freedom good-bye. Defending against such a fact pattern is a mighty tall order, and the best court-appointed lawyer can only do so much. Eventually, most any other man in this situation takes the plea deal and is placed into state custody with a judge’s admonishment about accepting personal responsibility.

An accused man with money, on the other hand, can fight back. He wields the only real weapon against the criminal justice system. The machinery will grind on, case after case, until that rare instance when a man of means who is looking at growing old in a prison cell exercises his right to jam the gears with money.

By the time the Durham police arrived at the Cedar Street mansion that terrible December night, Peterson had retained private counsel, as is his constitutional right. Upon his lawyer’s advice, Peterson never talked with police about what had happened to his wife, as is his constitutional right. He was able to post a bond to get out of jail pending trial, as is his constitutional right. By then, Peterson had effectively pledged his net worth and, later, the proceeds from the sale of that mansion, to the protection of his constitutional rights.

Peterson’s lawyers campaigned that a bigoted, corrupt police department – and by extension the district attorney, the state medical examiner and the State Bureau of Investigation – seized upon a devastating family tragedy, a ghastly accident, to retaliate against the one brave man in Durham who tried to hold them accountable.

The defense hammered every piece of evidence and every witness as irredeemably tainted by the authorities’ dislike of Peterson. At trial, the team brought in a string of impressive forensic experts who presented their theories on how a healthy, middle-aged woman ended up mortally wounded in the deep interior of her home from gashes that opened the back of her head while her husband stood outside near the pool smoking a cigar.

The prosecutors fiercely countered that the noble, underpaid public servants who worked for North Carolina’s taxpayers were honorable and would never, ever manufacture evidence of a crime. In October 2003, the jury believed the state, convicted Peterson of murder, and he got a life stretch in prison.

As time passed, his lawyers pursued appeals. Two books were published about the case. A French documentary took up Peterson’s chorus about bigoted, corrupt cops. Partisans even aired a theory that since the fatal injuries look like claw marks, Kathleen could have been killed by . . . an owl.

Michael Peterson impoverished himself in his defense. But that spent money didn’t just affect him. It had a tidal effect that went far beyond Durham. And it was strong enough to ripple back to Peterson.

In 2010, seven years into Peterson’s prison sentence, The News & Observer uncovered scandalous misbehavior in the State Bureau of Investigation, most notoriously by Duane Deaver, the agent who analyzed the blood evidence. Among the revelations was that Deaver fabricated evidence in Peterson’s case and misled the jury.

A judge set aside Peterson’s conviction and released him from prison – which, under the Constitution, had to be done.

Peterson tried to get the state to drop the case. No dice. But no one on the tortured course of this American horror story wanted to open this crypt again. So at last, in the multifaceted interests of justice, the curtain fell with a quiet little moment that perhaps was the most important of all.

Peterson came to Durham Superior Court Feb. 24 and, as part of a plea agreement, acknowledged that the prosecution, even without the tainted evidence, still could have persuaded a jury beyond a reasonable doubt that he had committed the lesser crime of manslaughter. He took, legally, absolutely the least responsibility for his wife’s death. Since Peterson had already served more than enough time in prison for manslaughter, he walked out the courthouse a free man.

No one, certainly not Kathleen’s long-sorrowing family and friends, expected this end. But this is the outcome that money produced. It’s not perfect. But it did bring some good.

Peterson’s trial raised loud, troubling questions about state crime investigation. The subsequent journalism unearthed the SBI misconduct and the state has promised to improve. The criminal justice system stumbles toward more fairness when it’s forced to operate by every comma and particular of the law. That doesn’t happen often. Usually a lot of time must pass before results are visible. But the miserable saga over the murder in the staircase has ended at last, and we can forget all about Michael Peterson. There’s some justice there.

Anne Saker, a staff writer at The Cincinnati Enquirer, was part of The News & Observer’s team that covered the 2003 trial of Michael Peterson.