Dateline   |  April 03, 2014

'Reversal of Fortune', Part 6

Michael Peterson's trial begins in 2003. Prosecutors believe they find a theory for murder in emails discovered on Peterson's computer.  

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> in the summer of 2003 , michael peterson would stand trial for the bludgeoning death of his wife kathleen . he pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.

>> i'm innocent of these charges. and we'll prove it in court.

>> but as the trial began, a prosecution team was determined to introduce the jury to the man behind the microphone on the courthouse steps. the person they saw as the real michael peterson .

>> he actually two sides to him. some people say dr. jeckle and mr. hyde. there was a side that outsiders saw and there was a side that insiders saw that was very different.

>> so this case is about pretempts and appearances. it's about things not being as they seem.

>> a woman who wrote a book about the case and hosts "true crime" on investigation discovery , says as the tile got under way, it was clear that michael and kathleen 's marriage was far from the perfect ones their friends envied.

>> what compelled me about this story is the notion that you never know who you're married to. and in this case, kathleen peterson had no idea that she was married to a wolf in sheep's clothing.

>> scratch beneath the glossy veneer, the beautiful house , sparkling dinner parties, and prosecutors would tell the jury, they find a marriage in shambles. more than the couple's money problems, more than the loss of social standing , after michael got caught lying about his military record, the there was what investigators found when they searched his home office .

>> there were secrets on the hard drive of the computer. huh?

>> big secrets .

>> and the prosecution would begin to reveal those secrets in graphic detail to a packed north carolina courtroom. while kathleen toiled away at her executive job to pay the couple's mounting bills, michael 's writing career was hitting a wall.

>> he had free time on his hands and we believe that he somewhere along the way began to form relationships with men that he particularly met on the computer.

>> not women, but men. the prosecution's theory was this. the night kathleen died she asked michael if she could use his computer to receive an e-mail about a sunday morning conference call .

>> kathleen was not allowed in michael 's office, nobody was. but that night because she had that important meeting in the morning, michael allowed her to get this one particular e-mail. she forgot her laptop at work.

>> it was in his office that prosecutors believe she stumbled upon a series of explicit e-mail exchanges between her husband and an escort. his name, soldier top brad. his website was a beef cake pose complete with dog tags .

>> he performed every service under the sun. happily for pay. he was a male prostitute.

>> you have great reviews and i would like to get together peterson wrote in one e-mail. i've never done escort but used to pay to blank a super macho guy who played lacrosse. i'm very bi and that's all there is to it.

>> what type of service did you perform?

>> oh, wow. that's pretty broad.

>> on the witness stand , the escort told the jury that just three months before kathleen 's death he and michael peterson had arranged to meet.

>> we were to hook up.

>> and what were you planning on doing?

>> having sex .

>> the hookup never happened. but combine that revelation with the other combustibles in the couple's life, like the financial stress, and you have all the ingredients the prosecution told the jury, for a fatal confrontation.

>> if kathleen had known this, she would never have stayed in that marriage according to her family members. she was not one to be cheated on. forget about having somebody who is being a bisexual with other men.

>> further evidence that michael attacked kathleen ferociously, the prosecution stated, was as clear as the spray of blood up the staircase wall.

>> the amount of blood , the positioning of the blood , the location of the blood , i was overwhelming.

>> in general terms, the greater the force, the softer the drop.

>> to take the jury vividly up the back stairs, the prosecution called the state's blood pattern expert. he told the jury with certainty that kathleen peterson had been beaten to death. he testified the droplet pattern high up the walls is what you expect to see with a weapon rising, striking, and casting off blood with each new blow.

>> i believe there is a minimum of four blows that have occurred in this scene.

>> what's more he testified, this bloodstain was found on the inside of peterson 's shorts. he done tests that he said proved the only way it could have gotten there was if peterson had been standing over his wife beating her.

>> the individual wearing these pants at the time of that impact was in close proximity to the source of blood when it was impacted.

>> the blood pattern expert also pointed out something especially chilling to the jury. technicians who responded to the scene had noticed drops of fresh blood on top of dry blood on one stair step. did that mean the assault happened in two stages?

>> there were two attacks. kathleen peterson was beaten and fell and then to make sure she was dead, she was beaten again.

>> further evidence to support the theory of two attacks showed up in lab tests, the prosecution argued. kathleen 's head injuries had produced something called red neurons, which they say form after oxygen is withheld from the brain for at least two hours.

>> that gives mr. peterson at least two hours to do this. before the 911 call was placed.

>> what was he doing during all that time? the state argued he was staging the scene. detectives saw what they thought were white marks on the stairs. to them it was an attempted cleanup. and there were two wine glasses on the kitchen counter suggesting an evening of too much drink followed by a tumble down the stairs. thing was, kathleen fingerprints weren't on ether glass. kathleen 's blood alcohol content was low enough she could have passed a roadside breathalyzer test. was the writer of fiction making up another story? covering up murder as an accident?

>> it seemed that somebody had poured a whole bottle of wine down the drain to make it look like they had been drinking more than they had.

>> so this is staged?

>> it was staged.

>> yet, if kathleen was bludgeoned to death as prosecutors thought, investigators hadn't found the murder weapon. it has been a gift from candace to her sister a decade before.

>> i found it to be a great gift. i definitely saw it be i the fireplace. if he had, that could explain those blood drops on the walkwa walkway.

>> blood dropping from the murder weapon as it was potentially disposed of somewhere outside the dwelling. but the state thought it was what the medical examiner found on top of the kathleen 's head that was the most compelling. seven tears to the scalp.

>> do you recall any case where someone died falling down the steps and there were multiple lacerations?

>> no.

>> were you able to determine in your opinion what the manner of her death was?

>> the manner of death in this case is homicide.

>> injuries that were eerily similar to those suffered by the peterson family friend from germany all those years before, elizabeth ratliff . and the jury almost in a trial within a trial heard that story. the long ago friends from germany testifying to their suspicions about michael peterson 's involvement in another stairway death. another one with so much blood .

>> the blood was up so high that i couldn't figure out how did the blood get up there?

>> it was the thing that wrapped up the state's case.

>> do you really believe that lightning strikes twice in the same place?

>> michael peterson had been the last person to have seen not only kathleen peterson alive, but also elizabeth ratliff .

>> that's a whole lot of women dead at the bottom of the stairs in this guy's life, don't you think?

>> so there was the prosecution's case for conviction. blood evidence, a staged scene and the trigger. the violent confrontation between husband and wife that resulted when a secret appetite for men was exposed. and not a bit of that made any sense, the defense was about to tell the jury.