Dateline   |  April 03, 2014

'Reversal of Fortune', Part 9

An alternate theory for Kathleen's death begins to take flight. 

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

>>> there are pleasant places to idle away your golden years but north carolina 's nash correctional institution isn't one of them. but that's where michael peterson , father, novelist and wife killer according to a jury of his peers, was incarcerated. just another number in a cell block with other felons, life without the possibility of parole .

>> the only way michael was going to get out of prison was in a coffin.

>> out in reno, though, peterson 's look alike younger brother hadn't given up hope, not yet. bill peterson , the lawyer, had been digging ceaselessly for years to come up with something new in his brother's case that the court might consider, but it was the longest of long shots after the appeals fizzled.

>> did the lawyer in you say that's it?

>> no. that's when the real hard work started. out of money, out of lawyers. that's when the burden fell on me and whoever would help me.

>> bill peterson spent hours in the durham county courthouse combing through the district attorney's piled high boxes of evidence. was there something that had been overlooked? and he wasn't the only supporter nursing alternate theories of kathleen peterson 's death. there is a neighbor on cedar street, an attorney, who had an intriguing idea for what he believes happened that night. his scenario of an accidental death has come to be known as the owl theory.

>> we've seen owls in the area. he thought that this was very plausible. he put together a theory himself.

>> here's how brother bill envisions the owl theory happening. kathleen who spent the day putting up christmas decorations goes out front that night while michael is back by the pool. she's checking on her laundry -- lawn display beneath the trees.

>> the owl flew down and landed on kathleen 's head and then tore her scalp in a manner that would be consistent with the lacerations found on her scalp.

>> bleeding, kathleen leaves drops on the walk and a smear on the door as she struggles getting into the house, getting only as far as the staircase where she joins the defense's depiction of falling, passing out, coming to and rising again, only to fall for the final time. the d.a.'s office had been approached with the owl theory during the trial and dismissed it outright.

>> what's wrong with the owl theory?

>> the lack of feathers, the lack of other things that might be left behind if an owl had, in fact, viciously attacked her was basically why it didn't seem to make sense.

>> the cops are making a big joke out of this. they put a picture of the owl on the most wanted list.

>> so the peterson jury never did hear about an owl theory. but zip ahead five years. the neighbor who was advocating for it still looking for something to back his theory up. sure enough, there it was in the original case notes file. a feather.

>> you have to magnify them 400 times just to see them.

>> tim thompson , owner of associated microscopes, was hired to examine the slide of that feather at the district attorney's office.

>> they grow under the claws of an owl. when they attack something, they leave behind the small particle feathers.

>> thompson peered through his microscope, studying a clump of hair found clutched in kathleen peterson 's hand. tangled in the hair is not one, but two minute feathers. a surprise he says both to the detectives and the assistant d.a. with him.

>> they were just surprised that their lab people had not found it.

>> bill peterson was surprised, too. here was further proof that an owl may have attacked kathleen .

>> a review of the slides showed what? traces of bird feather?

>> yes, yes. exactly right. in her hair. that's another very, very compelling fact.

>> what was most compelling about the idea that an owl attacked kathleen , supporters thought, was how it accounted for the distinct lacerations on her scalp. had the three main talons of an owl like these caused a bleeding head wound with these tears?

>> we had an expert saying it's consistent with the owl claw.

>> you think of the characteristic trident kind of talon claws.

>> yeah. yeah. as we all know, a scalp wound causes plenty of bleeding. she panicked. obviously she'd run in the house to get away from the owl. that she did. and ran down the stairwell.

>> and if an owl attacking human sounds like so much urban legend , don't tell that to byron unger. he owned a company about ten miles away from the peterson home. he was leaving work with his manager one night when an owl swooped down from the trees and swiped his colleague on the head. this surveillance camera caught the entire freakish event. and if that weren't strange enough, it happened to byron himself two weeks later.

>> i've never been hit so hard by something that felt like a baseball bat . knocked me probably five feet to the ground.

>> knocked you?

>> on the ground. scattered me. i was bleeding so bad i thought i lost my eye.

>> his wife waiting for him in the car dialed 911.

>> they didn't believe my wife. they thought we were crazy when we said my husband has been attacked by a bird or an owl.

>> show me in the head.

>> got me right here in to my eye a little bit and up in to my hair really bad. the side of the face and all up in here hit by talons.

>> is that what happened to kathleen peterson ? but critics see problems with the idea that an owl attacked kathleen . problems like, why isn't there more of a trail of blood from the front door to the staircase? and why would she go up the staircase at all? writer jones is one who thinks the owl theory falls apart .

>> michael was supposedly then outside as well? wouldn't he have heard his wife being attacked? wouldn't he have rushed to the other side of the lawn to see what was the matter?

>> and kathleen 's sister candace does not believe for an instant that an owl was responsible for what she sees as her sister's bludgeoning death.

>> i'm supposed to believe an owl ripped her apart, there's no ripping on her arms of an owl's talons. the thing is so ludicrous.

>> in the summer of 2009 , peterson 's neighbor filed a motion on the owl theory requesting that michael peterson be granted a new trial. the trial judge dismissed it. the owl theory was dead in court but lives on still in the court of public opinion.

>> there are people a lot smarter than me who absolutely are convinced this is what happened.

>> so with the motion for a new trial denied, with the owl shooed out of court, it really did finally seem to be the last chapter for the novelist. but a surprise ending or at least a surprise development was in store, and no one could have seen it coming.

>>> coming up --

>> so this is junk science , voodoo?

>> it's complete voodoo. they don't have the evidence they think they need to convict the person and so they make it up.

>> problems with the state crime lab lead to questions about one of the prosecution's star witnesses.

>>> by 2010 , seven years after michael peterson 's conviction, his daughter, martha, had given up hope her father would ever be released from nash correctional institution .

>> dad was probably going to be