Dateline   |  April 03, 2014

'Reversal of Fortune', Part 7

The defense presents their evidence and shows how Kathleen could have died from an accidental fall.

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

>>> what happened on that back staircase? was it the violent culmination of a perfect storm as the prosecution held? or was it really something not criminal at all? an unfortunate accident. for months michael peterson 's girls, margaret and martha sat in court suffering as they called their dad a killer.

>> they would accuse my father of double murders? or the wife murder? or the staircase murders? and we couldn't stand up and say wait a second, this isn't true.

>> but now it was lead defense attorney , david rudolf 's turn to convince a jury of that. kathleen 's death, he said, was a simple fatal accident . nothing else made sense.

>> the truth is that kathleen peterson after drinking some wine and some champagne and taking some valium tried to walk up a narrow, poorly lit stairway in flip-flops and she fell and she bled to death.

>> there had been no violent confrontation that night, no explicit discovery of e-mails by kathleen . all that he believed was a fantasy of the prosecution team. michael peterson was bisexual, sure, but that didn't mean the petersons weren't an extraordinarily happy couple.

>> did michael have sexual needs that he fulfilled outside the marriage? okay, he did. but that didn't mean that their relationship was anything other than great.

>> even brad, the escort, testified that peterson wrote to him about how much he loved his wife.

>> in his e-mails, unlike most of my clients, he indicated that he had a great relationship. most clients don't want to say anything about their relationships. he indicated he had a warm relationship with his wife and nothing would destroy that.

>> and the defense says kathleen could have known about his sexual inclinations. his brother said it was no secret to him.

>> were you shocked to learn that your brother has at least bisexual inclinations?

>> no. i've known that since i was 14.

>> and even if kathleen had discovered her husband's bisexuality that night, bill says an explosive fight wasn't the likely outcome.

>> i think she would be the kind of person that would talk through something like that, even seeking external help if she felt she needed it.

>> as for the peterson 's money problems, not so, the defense argued. contrary to being on the brink of financial collapse, the couple's net worth , assets minus debt, was a tidy pile. the state's financial analyst admitted as much in cross examination .

>> the situation in december of 2001 was a couple worth approximately $1.5 million after paying off their debts? that's correct.

>> the defense now had to scale the mt. everest of the case, the forensics, explaining to the jury all that blood . how could a simple fall have resulted in spatter so high up the staircase walls?

>> the defense would call dr. henry lee to the stand.

>> celebrity medical examiner dr. henry lee of o.j. case fame would show the jury in theatrical fashion just how kathleen , falling and staggering about, coughing up blood could have accounted for the spray.

>> an injured person walking, can move, can shake her head, can move the arm, can step forward.

>> obviously the blood all around was due to her being alive and moving around for some period of time. it didn't have to do with what inflicted the wounds.

>> and the blood on his shorts, that could have happened, the defense said, as michael peterson was cradling his wife. the other evidence proved michael peterson tampered with the scene. drops in the house and on the walkway outside, none of that could be trusted attorney rudolf told the jury.

>> the blood in that area had been completely altered. the scene at the house had been completely contaminated.

>> the defense argued the police had failed to secure the staircase for their first hour on the scene, allowing michael and even his son, todd , to track kathleen 's blood throughout the house.

>> michael goes up to kathleen , with the police watching, hugs her. todd takes him, puts him on the couch where there's blood transfer. and then todd says can i go get some soda and a glass and the police say sure, and here goes todd walking around the kitchen with blood on his hands.

>> the defense believe the blood evidence was misinterpreted by overzealous investigators who may have had it in for peterson from the start. remember those newspaper columns taking pot shots at the local pd? perhaps, his family thought, this was payback time.

>> they had not made a lot of friends with the police force , so perhaps they could have been doing a little extra to them.

>> as to the supposedly suspicious death of margaret and martha's mom, elizabeth ratliff , the defense treated it as a weird coincidence, but here in durham, north carolina , completely irrelevant. peterson was never charged with ratliff's murder and maintains he had nothing to do with her death.

>> what you had was a sort of circular argument. because she died at the foot of a stairway, then kathleen peterson must have been murdered. and because kathleen peterson was murdered at the foot of a stairway, then elizabeth ratliff must have been murdered. the reality is that elizabeth ratliff died of a stroke, and that was determined by an autopsy at the time. and it was never suspicious until kathleen died.

>> peterson 's brother agrees. investigators have been called to the scene in germany and found no indications of foul play.

>> two dead women at the bottom of a stairwell?

>> 17 years apart? coincidence do happen.

>> then those ghastly lacerations on kathleen 's head, which the state medical examiner attributed to a beating. defense attorney rudolf countered with an expert of his own, who noted what he didn't fine, no skull or bone fractures .

>> kathleen peterson 's injuries were the result of a fall and not the result of a beating.

>> there was absolutely no fractures anywhere. no fractures to her fingers, to her arms, to her skull, and there was absolutely no injury to the brain. and that's just almost an impossibility if what you're doing is beating somebody with a metal object.

>> just as unlikely, rudolf said, was the prosecution's contention that the brutal attack took place in a cramped stairwell. if michael peterson had been beating his wife with a metal object, wouldn't there have been nicks and dings in the walls? the defense took the jury on a tour of the cedar street home to show them, there were none.

>> it just defies imagination to think that he could have done that in that space and not caused some collateral damage.

>> and for a final exclamation point, the defense had a perry mason moment up its sleeve. the prosecution had insisted throughout the murder weapon used to bludgeon kathleen peterson was the fireplace blow poke, only police never found it. but near the end of the trial, a stunning revelation.

>> my heart started pounding.

>> peterson 's son, clayton, said while fixing his car he'd come across the missing blow poke. it was there all along and the cops had simply missed it.

>> here it was in the basement sitting there in the corner covered with dust and cobwebs. clayton ran upstairs to tell his father.

>> dad thought that it was a setup and that the police were going to come storming into the house.

>> in court the defense played the moment for all it was worth, getting the lead detective to agree that if this was the murder weapon, it was completely intact.

>> do you see any dents in there? even like a tiny little indentation?

>> it doesn't appear to have any dents.

>> that was the blow poke. well, if it is, then what was the murder weapon?

>> lawyer david rudolf thought he'd peppered reasonable doubt all the way through the state's circumstantial case. the perfect storm that wasn't to the murder weapon that was no more than a dusty fireplace tool. the peerson camp was confident.

>> we are so positive that he was going to get off, because in our minds, it was the clearest thing in the world.

>> but would the jury agree?