Image: Peterson
Defense attorney David Rudolf, left, and defendant Michael Peterson listen Thursday during the murder trial in Durham, N.C.
updated 10/10/2003 6:12:56 AM ET 2003-10-10T10:12:56

Novelist Michael Peterson was found guilty Friday of murdering his wife, whose body was found in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase in their home.

PETERSON, 59, REMAINED motionless as the verdict was read and the jurors individually asked if they agreed with it.

Prosecutors said he beat Kathleen Peterson to death in December 2001 to collect a $1.4 million life insurance policy. Defense lawyers say she must have died in an accidental fall after a night of drinking.

Peterson, whose novels include the 1990 “A Time of War” and its 1995 sequel, “A Bitter Peace,” will automatically be sentenced to life in prison without parole. He also is a former newspaper columnist and Durham mayoral candidate.

The jury began deliberations Monday after hearing testimony for 13½ weeks. Jury selection began May 5, opening statements were July 1.

After the verdict was read, Peterson turned to his daughters and other family members, saying “I love you.” His attorney, David Rudolf, told Judge Orlando Hudson that they would appeal.

Peterson was then handcuffed and led out of the courtroom.

During the trial, Rudolf insisted that Kathleen Peterson’s injuries weren’t consistent with a homicide, based on a comparison with state autopsy records of 257 killings since 1991.

“The simplest explanation for the kinds of injuries Kathleen Peterson had and the kind that she didn’t have is that she fell,” Rudolf said. “We didn’t even have a chipped fingernail.”

Prosecutors Jim Hardin and Freda Black argued that Peterson was anxious about the couple’s mounting credit card debt, and may have killed his wife to collect on her insurance.

They also called to the stand a male escort who testified about his e-mail correspondence with Peterson, as prosecutors tried to undermine the argument that the Petersons’ five-year marriage was happy.

The trial featured extensive testimony about the 1985 death of Elizabeth Ratliff, a widowed friend of Peterson and his first wife when they lived in Germany.

Ratliff was also found dead at the bottom of a staircase, and her death was long blamed on a fall. An autopsy performed this year on her exhumed remains concluded she, like Kathleen Peterson, died after being beaten in the head.

The trial’s spectators included her daughters, Margaret and Martha Ratliff, who were raised by Peterson after their mother’s death. They were among his staunchest defenders and held each other and sobbed when the verdict was announced.

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