The natural place to start would be inside the house at 1810 Cedar Street. On the back staircase where the dreadful thing happened. After all, that was the heart of the matter.
The children of the house could never undo it, or understand what had come to pass so violently.
Caitlin, daughter of Kathleen Peterson: My parents Michael and Kathleen had the most loving relationship ever. They were the most ideal parents.
You’ll learn soon enough about the other secrets that couldn’t be contained inside that gracious home in Durham, North Carolina.
The holidays had always come early at the Peterson’s.
Kathleen Peterson was one of those people who started putting up lights and wreaths the first week of December.
And as her daughter Caitlin remembers it, come December 2001 her mom and stepfather Michael, a writer, were eager to hear happy voices again in the sprawling six-bedroom home, with the kids grown and flown. They were now empty-nesters.
It was the kids, actually, who brought them together, in the mid-80s. His marriage had started to fall apart, she was separated. Michael’s two girls, children he’d adopted recently when their mother, a family friend, had died suddenly were playmates with Caitlin down the street. In 1987 they all moved in together.
Caitlin: They all sat me down and said: 'How would you like it if Martha and Margaret come live with you?' And I immediately thought -- 'a permanent sleepover!'
They became a family again.
Caitlin: Mom pulled me aside in the beginning and said, "This is going to be our family now.'
And the couple thrived. Michael by then was a full-time novelist. He’d gotten more than a half million dollar advance from his publisher for one of his books set in Vietnam, where he’d seen combat. Later on he’d write a sharp-edged column on city politics for the local paper.
Kathleen, a Duke engineering graduate, was a goal-oriented businesswoman who’d became a rising star at Nortel, the telecommunications company, as a $150,000 a year executive. She threw herself into a supermom schedule juggling career, kids, charities and the arts.
Michael’s brother could see the difference Kathleen made in him after a first marriage fizzled.
Bill Peterson, Michael’s brother: I think she was spontaneous. She was a lot of fun. She had a tremendous sense of humor. Caitlin: It was really easy to just kind of fall into amazement of this person who could just keep you entertained and laughing.
Not that it was all a laugh-track sitcom. Caitlin remembers some real screamers between her stepdad and mom. But Caitlin says that 20 minutes later it all would have blown over.
In 1992, the couple bought the 14-room dream home on Cedar Street and five-years later—they made it official and got married. And as time passed, their friends remarked on what a happy couple and family they were.
But as Christmas 2001 approached, the kids away at college, a jittery Kathleen, more than anyone, would have welcomed the time-out that the holiday offered. By now the boom had gone bust. Nortel stock was tanking. Thousands were being let go and Kathleen thought she’d be next. She was taking Valium.
Caitlin: I think more than anything, it was devastating. She threw her life into that company. And it wasn't just work that was stressing her out. She had to lay off her own boss.
Michael had been through some rough times too. A few years back, he’d run for mayor and, to his embarrassment, had been caught out publicly in a lie, embellishing his combat history in Vietnam.
Bill Peterson: It's just a bit of a lie that starts to exponentially grow over a period of time. And there's nothing you can do about it. It got out of control.
Still, just that past fall he’d picked himself up, run for local office again—city council—and lost. No question, the autumn of 2001 had been a tense one.
So on December 8th, with Kathleen dreading a morning conference call with the home office and likely more bad news, it was Michael who suggested an afternoon of Christmas shopping and a couple of bottles of wines later to put a cheerier glow on the evening.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: How much drinking was there in the house?Caitlin: My mom loved to party. She was a happy person. She'd have a glass of wine and start drinking to calm her nerves.Murphy: Were either of them sloppy drinkers?Caitlin: Not sloppy. But that's not to say she didn't drink a lot.
That night they had some dinner, watched a video, and celebrated the good news that Hollywood was nibbling at the rights to Michael’s most recent book. But what happened after that is mostly speculation. We know for certain that Kathleen took a call from a co-worker around 11 p.m. and perhaps waited by the computer for an e-mail from her colleague. Michael would say later that they sat out by the pool for awhile. He stayed for a smoke, when she went upstairs to go to bed.
Exactly how Kathleen Peterson came to be lying at the bottom of the stairs gushing blood would be a mystery that would tear a family apart by the roots.
911 call. Operator: Durham 911, where’s your emergency?Michael Peterson: 1810 cedar street please Operator: What’s wrong?Peterson: My wife had an accident she’s still breathing.Operator: What kind of an accident?Peterson: She fell down the stairs. She’s still breathing please come.
By the time Caitlin heard the news from her college roomate, it was much worse than a dreadful fall.
Caitlin: She looks me straight in the eye and she just says, "Caitlin, it's your mom. She's dead."
As is routine with any sudden death, the police were summoned to the scene.
Det. Art Holland: I received a page approximately—around three o’clock in the morning—that there was a—death investigation. The call came in as a person that had fallen down some steps.
When Detective Art Holland of the Durham police got to the Peterson home he encountered a ghastly tableau: A 48-year old woman lying dead in a pool of blood, splayed out on the floor, her head resting on the landing of a back staircase.
The arriving paramedics and police officers thought they’d been called to the scene of an accident but there was so much blood—everywhere—on the victim, splattered up the stairwell—that they couldn’t rule out foul play.
They’d called in Detective Holland from the homicide unit to ask him what he thought.
Det. Holland: This doesn't look like an accident.
Michael Peterson, barefoot in bloody shorts was standing nearby. Officers had seen him cradling his wife’s body. He had to be pulled away.
Det. Holland: I identified myself to Mr. Peterson and even shook his hand. And explained to him that sorry for her, his loss. But that it appeared that the scene looked suspicious and needed to be processed.Murphy: Was he helpful at that point? Did he answer your initial questions?Det. Holland: No, no he was pretty much, very quiet. Kept to himself didn’t say a whole lot.”
Police videotaped the scene as the officers found it. Michael Peterson’s tennis shoes and socks by the foot of the body, white towels soaked red with blood from the dead woman’s grievous injury to the back of her head. Blood smears up the oak staircase and on the walls above.
Detective Holland called for a crime scene analyst, an expert in blood spatter.
The technician made his measurements and the story revealed to him by the blood put the supposed accidental fall on Cedar Street in a whole new light.
Det. Holland: He told me that he felt strongly that this was a homicide.
For the next 20-hours officers meticulously photographed and documented what they now regarded as a crime scene. Blood outside on the walkway. Blood stains on the front door. The blood on the kitchen sink. A wine bottle and glasses on the counter. Every inch of the three-acre property was combed.
Murphy: You are looking for a murder weapon?Holland: We are looking for a murder weapon, sure.
The suspicious death of Kathleen Peterson was news. The family gathered in grief, unaware that even more sorrow was headed its way.
In mid-February—two months after Kathleen’s death—the medical examiner released her autopsy report with back of the skull photographs that, she said, indicated a death by blunt-force trauma. Seven deep lacerations on the scalp. In other words, the medical examiner found that Kathleen Peterson had been bludgeoned to death.
Not long after, Michael Peterson—novelist, sometime politician—was charged with the first-degree murder of his wife. Conviction would mean life in prison.
Peterson denied killing his wife. Peterson’s four children, and step-daughter Caitlin, stood by their father’s side.
Accident or murder: which was it? A question to be resolved in the Durham County Court House.
The first-degree murder trial of Michael Peterson began in July 2003, with the prosecutor, Jim Hardin, promising to tell a story of a husband who killed in a perfect storm of domestic tension; a crime fueled, he argued, by money worries and sexual secrets.
Jim Hardin, prosecutor: I am representing Kathleen because she is not going to be able to tell anybody what happened and we are her voice.
The defendant says that Kathleen Peterson’s death was caused by a tragic accidental fall down the stairs in their home. And we say on the other hand that she died a horrible painful death at the hands of her husband Michael Peterson.
The state began its mostly circumstantial case with testimony from the police and paramedics summoned to the scene. Assistant district attorney Freda Black did the questioning.
Freda Black, assistant district attorney: What looked suspicious to you?
Paramedic: One, I had a deceased person there and then there was a large amount of blood that didn’t look consistent with someone falling down steps.
Too much blood, the first-responders thought, for a fall on a wooden staircase but just as puzzling: the blood on and around the victim was mostly dry.
Paramedic: It did not have the sheen that normally comes with wet blood.
Dried blood, meant to the paramedics, that the victim had been lying at the bottom of the stairs for awhile before the 911 call came in around 2:40 a.m.
Jim Hardin: We have contended all along that the attack probably occurred around midnight or maybe a little bit earlier.
The dried blood was one sign to investigators that time had elapsed before the husband called for help but there was something else found later in lab tests, a kind of biological clock and marker. Injuries discovered in Kathleen’s brain had produced something called “red neurons.”
Hardin: For those to develop, she has to have an ischemic event, which means lack of oxygen to the brain for at least a two-hour period.Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: She’s bleeding to death?Hardin: She’s bleeding to death.
It raised an unanswered question: if Kathleen Peterson is slowly dying for two hours at the bottom of the stairs, where is Michael Peterson all the while?
The prosecution also called the first police investigator at the house. The officer testified he saw red flags indicating foul play right away, notably the way Kathleen Peterson’s body had come all too neatly to rest.
Det. Borden: In my experience, very rarely—I don’t think ever—I saw a serious fall where the neck was in complete alignment with the spinal cord.
Then there was what some thought, odd behavior of the husband.
A veteran crime-scene technician testified he remembered his first glimpse of Michael Peterson bursting through the patio door covered in blood.
Crime scene technician: He was moaning and he ran thru the home over to Mrs. Peterson’s body. And then he put his arms around her and he was still sobbing.
The prosecutor contended this was all melodramatic acting and a way for Peterson to account for blood on himself.
Murphy: So there’s a whole bunch of these little things, like “What’s going on here? What’s up with this guy?”Hardin: The scene doesn’t make sense and doesn’t square with the story.
Officers called by the prosecution noted other incongruities: the husband’s sneakers and bloody socks. Why had he taken them off? His wife’s dying and he’s concerned about messing up the house?
Hardin: It didn’t make sense why he’d take his shoes off unless he realized he was going to be tracking blood thru the house and he had to take his shoes off so he could execute some cleanup.
And how did one of those same sneakers leave a bloody footprint on the BACK side of his dead wife’s sweatpants, the side facing the floor?
There was testimony from other prosecution witnesses that Peterson had tried to clean a large stain of blood off the front of his shorts.
And other details: on the kitchen counter police saw a bottle of wine and two glasses neatly arrayed—implying, perhaps, the couple had passed a relaxing evening at home sipping wine together. The problem with that cozy image, according to the prosecution, was that his dead wife’s fingerprints weren’t on either glass. The prosecutor argued that Peterson had prominently set out the bottle and glasses to suggest that Kathleen had had too much to drink and had tumbled down the stairs inebriated.
Hardin: It went to the aspects of staging in that scene.
In fact, the medical examiner found that Kathleen’s blood alcohol content was so low she could have passed a roadside breathalyzer test.
Was the writer of fiction, making up yet another story to cover-up murder, as an accident? If so, the cops weren’t buying it.
Murphy: State says Michael Peterson beat his wife to death. With what? What was the murder weapon?Hardin: Well, we contended that it was the blowpoke that was seen in that home on many occasions.
A blowpoke—a metal fireplace tool—identical to the one the prosecutor showed the jury. It had been a gift from Kathleen’s sister Candace.
Prosecutor: Did you have the occasion to see it in her home at various times when you visited?Kathleen Peterson's sister Candace: Yes, it was always in the kitchen, I used it, I observed Kathleen use. It was always in the kitchen.
In the kitchen, by the back staircase. But search as they may, the police never did find the blowpoke.
Murphy: A question for the jury is: “Well, where’s the weapon at? How does he hide it with police all around him?”Hardin: You’ve got to realize he’s got several hours that he can clean-up. And in my opinion, I think that it was removed from that property.
Was that why there was blood on the front door and a drop on the brick walkway?
Hardin: Someone with blood on them had to go outside during a relevant time period to this event.
In the end, the state’s case was all about accounting for blood and how it got there.
The state’s blood spatter expert told the jury he was certain Kathleen Peterson had been beaten to death because the droplet patterns of blood and spray on the steps and walls of the stairwell were just what he expected to see if you imagine a weapon rising, striking, rising, casting off blood up the wall with each new blow.
And the expert said the blood found on the INSIDE lower leg of Peterson’s shorts confirms his theory.
Murphy: Do I have the picture right that he would be straddling over her in the stairwell striking her, as the theory goes? The blood is coming up and hitting the inside part of the shorts?Hardin: Inside back of the right pant leg, that’s correct.Murphy: And you couldn’t get the blood there by saying, “Well, I was cradling her, trying to give her some help?”Hardin: No.
What’s more, the prosecution’s blood expert said he saw evidence of an attempt to clean-up some of the blood on the stairwell.
A scrubbed-down stair step was especially chilling because technicians found drops of fresh blood on top of the smudged clean-up. Did that mean the lethal assault happened in two stages?
Hardin: She was probably down during at least a portion of that time. And then became conscious again. And he had to initiate a second round of assaults because the blood spatter is on the clean-up.
It came down to the crucial testimony of the medical examiner to button-up the state’s case with an explanation of the gruesome autopsy photos, ultimately the best evidence the state had.
Prosecutor: Do you recall any case where someone died falling down steps and there were multiple lacerations?Medical examiner: No.
The medical examiner testified to finding seven tears on the scalp so deep they went down to the skull. And bruises on the face arms and hands, she said, were signs of defensive actions, made during a struggle, not a fall.
Medical examiner: In my opinion the injuries were a result of being struck by an object or having the head struck against an object.Prosecutor: Were you able to determine in your opinion what the manner of her death was?Examiner: Yes I was.Prosecutor: What was it?Examiner: In my opinion the manner of death in this case is homicide.
But if it were a ghastly murder on the back staircase, why did it happen?
The prosecutor isn’t required to give a motive but he knew he had to speculate for the jury anyway.
And that motive, said the state, could be found inside a checkbook and inside a computer hard drive.
The jury was about to meet “Brad”—and Michael Peterson’s sexual secrets would be unveiled.
Prosecution: In a very real sense, this case is about pretense and appearances. It’s about things not being as they seem.
The prosecution, through its crime-scene and forensic evidence, had described a violent confrontation between the novelist and his executive wife on the back staircase of their million-dollar home.
Michael Peterson was accused of savagely bashing his wife in the head with a fireplace tool, then bludgeoning her again as she regained consciousness.
Blood splattered everywhere.
The medical examiner had testified to horrific lacerations to Kathleen Peterson’s scalp.
Now the prosecution was going to tell the court WHY the murder happened.
A contributing factor, according to the prosecutor, was money. Despite appearances, the Peterson’s were cash poor, living month to month on vapors.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: What did you find on the credit card debt?Jim Hardin, prosecutor: $143,000 worth of credit card debt.Murphy: So they were living on plastic?Hardin: Yes.
With three children in top-ranked private universities, with his books returning only piddling royalties. They were getting by on Kathleen’s monthly salary and a big chunk of that was deferred for taxes. What’s more her job security was tenuous, at best.
Butif Kathleen were dead from an accident her company insurance policy would pay Michael, the beneficiary, about $1.8 million dollars.
Mike Peterson the creative thinker, the writer of fiction, was able to figure out the perfect solution. That solution was to make it appear that Kathleen fell down her steps and died.
Checkbook problems may have been the gasoline of the murder, but the state theorized that something else was the match:
Hardin: It wasn’t a storybook marriage. It wasn’t monogamous and that we believe that there was a trigger that evening.
That trigger, according to the prosecutor, just may have to do with Michael Peterson’s sexuality, a desire for men.
The “Other Man” was about to be a sensational revelation in this trial.
Though Peterson’s brother thinks it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone who really knows Michael Peterson.
Bill Peterson, Michael Peterson’s brother: I’ve known about my brother’s sexual orientation since I was a teenager.Murphy: So this is no secret to you and your family?Bill Peterson: No, no.
According to Peterson’s brother, Michael Peterson is, and always has been, bisexual. But, importantly, did his wife Kathleen know?
Murphy: Do you think your mother knew anything about that aspect of him?Caitlin, Kathleen Peterson's daughter: I genuinely cannot believe that she could know anything about that. I know—from every value that she’s taught me, from every—from the way that I was raised, that’s not something that she would have been willing to accept.
And on the night of the murder, the prosecutor believed Kathleen stumbled upon something explosive on the Peterson’s home computer: downloaded images of naked men—2,000 of them.
Hardin: There were liaisons outside the marriage that Kathleen didn’t know about.
And there was more: a series of e-mail exchanges between Michael Peterson and a local male prostitute he’d found through the Internet.
His name was Brad, a 26-year old former soldier. His website pic was a come-hither beefcake pose complete with dog tags.
The college student bragged about his endowments and pitched himself as clean-cut “jock-masculine...I am definitely dominant.”
The assistant D.A. quizzed a confident, upbeat, Brad on the stand.
Prosecutor: What type of services did you perform?"Brad": Oh well, that’s pretty broad. Basically, it’s companionship for other males of legal age.Prosecutor: Did that involve sexual activity?Brad: Sometimes it does.Prosecutor: What type of sexual activities, sir?Brad: Oh, just about anything under the sun.
So here was the state’s motive for murder: the prosecutor arguing that Michael Peterson killed in a rage after being confronted about this sexual secret and dalliance with a male prostitute. Brad told the court that Peterson had first contacted him by e-mail in August 2001, four-months before the murder.
Brad: I believe it was just, conversations back and forth on an e-mail correspondence, trying to get to know me a little bit better and a little bit of friendly jabbing at me.Prosecutor: You all contacted each other back and forth approximately how many times by way of the computer?Brad: I am guessing about 20 different e-mail correspondences by either myself or in person.Prosecutor: Did you all discuss anything other than getting to know each other?Brad: As far as I can recall, it was basically the same as many other clients who would contact me. They’d want to get to know me, about my life, about they want to be safe, so they want to get to know me to make sure that I am a “straight” guy.Prosecutor: Did you send him a picture of yourselfBrad: Yes, m’am. I did.Prosecutor: What purpose?Brad: Usually anyone who is contacting me likes to know what they are getting.
The prosecutor showed jurors a steamy collection of e-mails that Michael Peterson had sent Brad in the weeks leading up to the proposed rendezvous:
"You have great reviews and I would like to get together""I’ve never done escort but used to pay to f--- a super- macho guy who played lacrosse...""I’m very bi and thats all there is to it"
According to the prosecutor, by late summer 2001, four months before Kathleen’s death, Michael Peterson, the action-war novelist and former marine, had agreed to get with Brad, another former military man, for sex at Peterson’s home.
Brad: We were to hook-up, I believe on Sept. 5, 2001.Prosecutor: During your conversations with Mr. Peterson, did you all actually even discuss a price for your services?Brad: I believe we did.Prosecutor: And what was the price you quoted him?Brad: I believe it was $150 per hour.Prosecutor: Ok was that your normal price that you would have for most of your clients?Brad: In the beginning of my short career, yes.Prosecutor: The prostitution career...Brad: Yes...I do prefer to call it "escort." Prosecutor: Escort I am sorry.Prosecutor: Did you all have any type of communication, whether it be by computer or by phone, about how it was that you all were going to hook-up together without his wife knowing it?Brad: I don’t remember any discussions about whether his wife would or would not know. It may be in the e-mails, but I do not recall that.
Here was humiliating testimony for Michael Peterson.
His sweatiest secrets tumbling publicly out of the closet in televised sworn testimony.
The prosecution hammering out its motive for murder.
And yet sitting in court taking it all in, his face was an unreadable mask.
Prosecutor: Did you all actually discuss what you were going to do when you were to get together on Sep. 5, 2001?Brad: Yes Ma’amProsecutor: What were you all planning on doing?Brad: Having sex.
But Brad told the court when the appointed day came around he was tired and canceled the sexual tryst.
Prosecutor: So you just simply didn’t contact him back at all?Brad: I do not think I contacted him that night. I have found out that I contacted him about 25-days later to apologize for not showing up.Prosecutor: After you contacted him to apologize for not showing up, did you have further communication with him?Brad: No ma’am.Prosecutor: Why not?Brad: I believe he did not e-mail me back.
Brad testified that he and Peterson had never met until here in court. For the prosecutor the Brad episode showed a couple of things: that the marriage of Kathleen and Michael was anything but rock-solid and as important was the trail of e-mail messages that resulted, the “trigger” the state talked about.
Hardin: If you read those e-mails, it’s pretty plain about what they intended to do.Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: Do you have any reason to believe that Kathleen knew about this side of her husband and accepted it?Hardin: None whatsoever. She had already been through a previous marriage where infidelity was an issue and she didn’t tolerate it. And why would she tolerate it now? There was a trigger, and we’ve contended all along that she must have found something out about this life style that caused it.
Let’s go back to the night of Kathleen’s death. The prosecutor sets out this theory of what happened. After an innocuous evening at home, Kathleen takes that call from a colleague and then goes to the study to wait for an e-mail about her morning business meeting. Idling on the computer, did she come across the open file e-mail messages with Brad the prostitute? Did she see a print out of it in the desk drawer? Whichever, the state believes, Kathleen lit into Michael about his secret life.
Murphy: She found something?Hardin: Confronted him about it. And from that point, we know what happened.
So there it was. The prosecution’s case for conviction: blood evidence, odd behavior by the defendant at the crime scene, money woes and the trigger, the violent confrontation between husband and wife that resulted when asecret homosexual appetite was exposed.
And not a bit of all that made any sense, the defense was about to tell the jury.
What happened on that back staircase?
Was it the violent culmination of a perfect storm of domestic stress, as the prosecution argued?
Or was it really something more mundane? Something unfortunate, but perfectly understandable.
Defense attorney: The truth is that Kathleen Peterson, after drinking wine and champagne after taking some valium tried to walk up a narrow poorly lit stairway in flip-flops and she fell and she bled to death.Dave Rudolf, lead defense attorney: In my mind this was a case about reasonable doubt.
Dave Rudolf the lead defense attorney was now putting on his case, telling the jury that Kathleen’s death—gory as the pictures may be—was a simple, fatal, accident.
Nothing else made sense.
Rudolf: Well, I think there’s no doubt that the weakest part of the state’s case was motive.
Despite the prosecution’s portrayal of Michael Peterson as a closeted bisexual, the defense argued the Peterson’s were an extraordinarily happy couple.
Rudolf: Everywhere they went, people noticed Michael looking at Kathleen with the kind of pride that you just don’t fake.
And money problems? Hardly. Contrary to being on the brink of financial disaster, the couple’s net worth—assets minus debts—was a tidy pile. The state’s financial analyst admitted as much in cross-examination by a member of the defense team.
So, the defense said the idea that Peterson would have killed his wife to collect the insurance didn’t make sense. If it wasn’t about money, then what about the prosecution’s theory that a violent confrontation took place after Kathleen stumbled upon her husband’s e-mail solicitation of a male prostitute?
To be sure, no defense attorney welcomes a problem like Brad but Rudolf tried to undo the damage done by the escort in his cross-examination, first by getting the prostitute to say that contact with men like Peterson was far from unusual.
Rudolf: Was that an unusual occurrence for you to have, or plan to have sexual relations with married men?Brad: To the contrary. I mean, married men are in the majority of most of the clients that I saw when I was an escort.Rudolf: With regards to the kinds of men that you tended to have escort relationships with, can you give us some indication as to their professions for example?Brad: Sure, usually they are professionals because my fees were quite high. I saw doctors, attorney’s, one judge (laughter)...Judge: It was not this judge! (laughter)
Remember the prosecution theorized that the discovery of steamy e-mails between Peterson and Brad was likely what triggered the violent confrontation between the writer and his wife. Now the defense wanted the jury to think about this from the other way around: maybe Kathleen did know about her husband’s bi-sexuality but didn’t push him on it. A domestic “don’t ask, don’t tell’ arrangement. If so, there went the state’s explosive trigger.
Rudolf: Did a number of the men, the married men, that you had sexual relations with have wives that knew they were bi-sexual?Brad: I believe most of them did from my experience.Rudolf: In your experience, was it unusual for a wife married to a bi-sexual man, to know that he was bi-sexual?Brad: Not at all.Rudolf: Was it unusual for a bi-sexual man using your services to be in a happy marriage?Brad: Not at all. Most of the men who would see me would have their time with me and then go back to their happy, healthy lives.
And the male prostitute added it would all be physical. No romantic or emotional entanglements allowed.
Rudolf: Was there any kind of personal relationship involved between you and Michael Peterson?Brad: No sir.Rudolf: Was that even on the radar screen?
Brad: No sir. I believe in one of the emails it was very explicit that there would be no emotions involved no personal relationships involved it would be strictly physical.
So did Kathleen know about her husband’s bisexuality or not? If she were aware and tolerated his homosexual interests, then there went the prosecution’s so-called trigger, the flashpoint for its fatal confrontation scenario. The defense argued Peterson certainly wasn’t going out of his way to hide his flirtation with Brad. Jurors were shown the household telephone bill, which was in Kathleen’s name. There on the September 2001 statement, were three short telephone calls to Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Brad’s number. If this were all a secret, shameful activity would Peterson have used the home phone so openly?
Rudolf: Show me one piece of evidence, one person who says that Kathleen was upset because Mike was bisexual. Or Kathleen was upset because michael was seeing other people outside the marriage. Not one shred of evidence. Not one.
The defense even used the male prostitute as an unlikely witness to the strength of the Peterson marriage.
Rudolf: Did Michael Peterson ever do or say anything either on the phone or by e-mail that indicated that he was not in love with Kathleen Peterson?Brad: To the contrary, 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 the relationship. He said he had a warm relationship with his wife and nothing would ever destroy that.
The defense showed the jury Peterson’s own words in an e-mail to Brad:
“I am married. Very happily married with a dynamite wife.”
Rudolf: Why would someone in an email like that say something like that if it wasn’t coming from their heart? So in my mind, that’s as credible a statement as you can get about how he really felt about Kathleen.Murphy: Undercutting the state’s theory of motive?
Rudolf: Oh, absolutely.
Consider that Michael Peterson and Brad the prostitute never DID get together. The defense raised doubts as to whether Peterson really intended to follow through on the sex date with Brad. If it were all just a sexual fantasy, the defense argued there was even less of a motive for murder.
Rudolf: On September 30Brad: Yes I did.Rudolf: And you explained in that e-mail why you hadn’t come up to meet him?Brad: YesRudolf: And he didn’t respond to that?Brad: No he didn’t.Rudolf: Are there some percentage of the people that you have e-mail correspondence that you just never hook up with for one reason or another?Brad: That happens quite a bit.Rudolf: Sometimes they’re more interested in the communication than meeting?Brad: Certainly, a lot of guys are interested in hooking-up, but others just want to get to know a military man, and find out about him and get information about me, and it never goes beyond cyberspace.Rudolf: After that email on 9/30/01 that you sent to him, did you ever have any further contact with michael Peterson?Brad: No sir.Rudolf: Sir, do you know anything about the death of Kathleen Peterson?Brad: I know diddly.
With Brad stepping down from the stand, the defense now had to take on the Mount Everest of the case: the forensics, accounting for all that blood and those appalling injuries.
For the defense—as for the prosecution—the case would rise or fall on how persuasively it accounted for all the blood and the deep lacerations to the victim’s head.
Defense attorney Rudolph countered the state’s medical examiner with an expert of his own, a neuropathologist—he noted what he DIDN’T see: no skull or bone fractures.
Dave Rudolf, lead defense attorney: Were there any fractures of the skull, any facial bones, mandible, any bony structures of face?Expert: None reported. No.Rudolf: Or the hands or arms?Expert: No.Rudolf: Any of the common injuries one sees in beating deaths?Expert: No.
The defense expert said everything pointed to an accident and not murder.
Expert: Kathleen Peterson’s injuries were the result of a fall and not the result of a beating.Rudolf: If someone is beating someone over the head with a blunt object, you’re trying to inflict maximum damage. And you’re gonna get a brain contusions, you’re gonna get a skull fracture. And there weren’t any here. And to drive that point home, the defense lawyers took the jurors on a field trip to the house itself, to the back staircase where they hoped jurors would see it was too narrow to freely swing a longish murder weapon like a fireplace tool.Rudolf: It is impossible to conceive of Michael Peterson beating Kathleen Peterson to death with a blow poke or anything else for that matter in that stairway.
Not a beating, an accident, said the defense. And to help the jurors envision the way Kathleen may have died, the defense hired a body motion expert, to describe a likely accidental plunge.
First, the expert said, forget about stairway falls in the movies like this particularly dramatic one staged in the film, “Dolores Claiborne.” In real life, the expert claimed, people don’t take a spill that way.
To help jurors imagine how a woman in flip flops, medicated with valium, maybe tipsy with drink, might have fallen: the body-motion expert showed an animation he’d had made. In it, Kathleen climbs the stairs to go to bed. She suddenly loses her balance and falls backwards from the fourth step, hitting her head on the molding, cutting open a nasty wound to her scalp. Stunned, she tries to get up but slips in a puddle of blood and falls again, doomed now to bleed out.
Dave Rudolf, defense attorney: What we had to overcome were the pictures and the blood. That was very clear right from the beginning.
And to account for the blood spatter—the spray that the state’s analyst said resulted from Michael Peterson striking his wife over and over with a blunt object...
Defense attorney: At this time the defense would like to call Dr. Henry Lee to the stand.
....the defense put on a celebrity expert witness, none other than Dr. Henry Lee, the medical examiner of O.J. case fame.
Dr. Lee explained the blood spatter in a theatrical manner.
He swigged a small amount of ketchup, took a deep breath and then spit it out...replicating he said the victim of the fall coughing up blood, staggering about the stairwell in a daze.
Dr. Lee: At the scene the injured person can be walking, can move, can shake her head, can move her arms step forward.
The result: blood splatter up the wall of the staircase and on the inside leg of Peterson’s shorts as he tended to her making the stain the prosecution thought so damning.
Rudolf: Obviously, the blood all around was due to her being alive and moving around for some period of time.Murphy: Couldn’t that also be consistent with the state’s theory that Peterson attacked her once. She revived and he had to attack her again?Rudolf: Well but that makes no sense. If you’re going to kill somebody then you finish it.
And whereas the prosecution said there was too much blood to be explained by a simple fall, Dr. Lee—perhaps counter-intuitively—asserted just the opposite. Saying there was way too much blood on and around the staircase for it to have been a beating.
Dr. Lee: Too much blood spatter. Ordinary beating case you don’t have that many blood spatter...
And as for those suspicious observations the police and EMT’s made about the victim’s blood being already dry by the time they arrived: on cross-examination those same prosecution witnesses conceded they hadn’t really looked at the blood all that closely at the time.
In fact, lawyer Rudolf argued that the first police in the door may have had it in for the husband once they realized he was the same Michael Peterson taking regular potshots at them in his newspaper column, accusing them of only solving a small fraction of crimes and not getting a handle on drug trafficking in the city. Maybe this was payback time.
Rudolf: It wasn’t that hard for them to look at the blood and assume the worst about Michael Peterson.
And for all their measuring and collecting evidence at the scene, defense attorney Rudolf had a Perry Mason moment up his sleeve about a huge clue the police missed altogether.
The defense’s expert witness Dr. Henry Lee, the medical-examiner of O.J. case fame, had told the jury the copious blood-spatter on the back staircase convinced him Kathleen Peterson had died of a fall, not a beating.
Dr. Lee, it turned out, wasn’t the only echo of the Simpson trial. Defense attorney Rudolph was about to take on the competency of the police, just as the Dream Team lawyers had.
The defense started by going after a supervising officer for letting unauthorized traffic into the crime scene.
Dave Rudolf, defense attorney: You were a little concerned about who all these people were at the scene weren’t you?Det. Borden: Yes.
The defense would challenge the cops on what they didn’t do in the Peterson house in the wee hours as family, neighbors, paramedics converged on that back staircase.
Rudolf: The police didn’t tape off the area of the stairwell until 3:34 a.m., almost an hour after the call came in. And by then, it was just too late. The blood in that area had been completely altered, the scene at the house had been completely contaminated.Murphy: This was not a pristine preserved crime scene was it? Rudolf: No the truth of the matter is it was not preserved at all for about an hour.
Peterson’s lawyers had criticized what they called sloppy police procedures from day one.
Why did the cops allow Peterson to step in and embrace the body of his dead wife?
Why did they let Peterson’s son Todd, who’d arrived at the house shortly after the paramedics, walk to the kitchen to get a soda, transferring blood as he went?
Rudolf: 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 get some soda and a glass? And the police say ‘Sure.’ And here goes Todd, walking around the kitchen with blood on his hands.”
Remember, the first responders at the house said traces of blood here and there beyond the stairwell itself had made them suspicious. Didn’t look right.
Rudolf: When you went into the kitchen area there, you noticed some blood, I think you said, on a kitchen cabinet?Borden: Yes.
But under cross-examination the police investigator who’d declared the house a crime scene admitted he’d been unaware of people traipsing about, like Peterson’s son.
Rudolf: Of course, you didn’t know anything about Todd Peterson being permitted to go get soda in a glass and that sort of thing?Borden: No, I did not. I was not aware of that.Rudolf: And had you been aware of that, that might have at least factored into your thinking about how suspicious that was?Borden: You’re right, yes, I agree with you.Rudolf: The blood in the kitchen area, for example, was a complete irrelevancy once you established that there was contamination there in the kitchen with the police standing right by.
It became a defense theme: things that looked suspicious at first, on closer examination turned out to not to be suspicious at all, just sloppy police work.
Take the testimony of the police investigator who’d thought there was something suspicious about how Kathleen Peterson’s body had come so neatly to rest in the stairwell—her head and neck aligned straight up and down with her spine. The officer conceded under defense cross-examination that he’d made that judgment before learning the husband had cradled his wife’s body and placed her down as police watched.
Borden: I had no knowledge of that.Rudolf: And of course, that info would have been helpful to you in determining whether or not that was really a red flag or not right?Borden: That information would have been helpful.”
But the biggest lapse of the police, as the defense saw it, was going to allow defense attorney Rudolph to dress-up his case with a showy flourish.
All along the prosecution had insisted the murder weapon used to bludgeon Kathleen Peterson was a metal fireplace tool called a “blowpoke.” More than thirty police officers had scoured the Peterson’s house and grounds but they never found it. There had been ominous testimony from Kathleen’s sister that the blowpoke she’d always seen in the kitchen by the back staircase was missing, the suggestion being that Michael Peterson made murderous use of it then hid it someplace in the two-plus hours he had before finally making the 911 call.
Now—in one last big swing for the fences to make the police look inept clueless and therefore unreliable witnesses, the defense called to the stand the state’s lead police investigator. Attorney Rudolf had something to show the detective.
It was a moment out of “Perry Mason.”
What was labeled exhibit 280 was nothing less than the long missing blowpoke—the state’s alleged murder weapon—an undamaged old fireplace tool with only a tip missing at the end.
Rudolf: Mow this 280 thats a blow poke isn’t it? Is that what it appears to be?Detective: Appears to be a blow poke.Rudolf: If we look at the handle, for example, its pretty much the same thing right?Detective: Appears to be.Rudolf: This doesn’t appear to you to be mangled, does it?Detective.: It’s not mangled, no sir.Rudolf: It’s not even dented is it? See any dents? Even a tiny indentation?Detective: It doesn’t appear to have any dents in it.Rudolf: Do you know where ex 280 it has been for the last 20 months?Detective: No I do not.Where? In the Peterson garage, that’s where.
The defense attorney claimed it had been found there just days before, covered with cobwebs and dead insects, implying that police and everyone else had overlooked it. Not hidden, said the defense, because it had never been a murder weapon in the first place.
Rudolf: Does this appear to you, 280, to be the blow poke that Mr. Hardin has been talking about being mysteriously missing since this trial began?Prosecutor: Objection to the characterization!
Rudolf: There’s no smoke and mirrors about that. That was the blowpoke. Well if it is, then what was the murder weapon?
Lawyer Dave Rudolf thought he’d peppered reasonable doubt all the way through the state’s circumstantial case... from the bloodwork that described a fall as persuasively as a bludgeoning—to the marital “perfect storm” that wasn’t, to the murder weapon that wasn’t missing at all and was no more than a dusty fireplace tool.
Peterson’s lawyer elected not to put him on the stand.
But maybe as important as any evidence his team put on was the sight of one of writer’s two boys and the adopted daughters Martha and Margaret sitting prominently in support of him throughout the gruesome testimony?
But the prosecution wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot. The judge had just made a ruling that was going to allow the jury to hear something absolutely flabbergasting.
Something that occurred four thousand miles away, almost 20 years before.
Grafenhausen, Germany, is a suburb of Frankfurt 4,000 miles from the Durham County courthouse. And that’s the unlikely place where the focus of the trial had now turned.
The judge—mid-trial—in the Peterson case was listening to arguments on whether to allow the jury to hear about something that had happened in the defendant’s life nearly 20-years before. In the light of what took place in North Carolina, something so unlikely that you couldn’t get quoted odds on it ever occurring twice to one man.
The bizarre story begins in the early ‘80s at America’s Rhein-Main Air Base in Germany, at the time, a busy intersection in the Cold War.
Among the U.S. citizens living around the base was Michael Peterson, his then-wife and their two boys. She taught at the American school there.
Peterson and his wife became fast friends with another teacher, a woman named Elizabeth Ratliff and her husband, a career air force officer.
Elizabeth Ratliff’s sister Margaret recalled those days.
Margaret Blair, Elizabeth Ratliff’s sister: They took family trips together all the time. They had dinner at each other’s house.
Then one day Elizabeth Ratliff’s husband was killed while on a secret assignment. The widow was left alone with two young daughters. The Peterson’s took her under their wing, Michael Peterson becoming almost a stand-in dad and father.
On November 24th 1985, on a night like so many others, Elizabeth and her two girls had gone over to the Petersons for dinner. Later, Michael Peterson drove the widow and her daughters home, helped put the girls to bed.
The next morning Elizabeth’s sister back in the states got the dreadful phone call.
Blair: There’s been an accident. Your sister fell down the stairs and died.
Authorities arrived and discovered Elizabeth Ratliff face down at the bottom of the stairs. There was an official finding that she’d died of a spontaneous intracranial hemorrhage, a stroke, natural causes.
Blair: At that point there were gut feelings like something’s not right. But we didn’t find out until later that something was very wrong.
The dead woman’s will designated the Petersons as the legal guardians of her two daughters.
Not long after, Michael Peterson, his wife and now four children moved back to the States, to North Carolina.
Fast forward 16 years to December 2001 and then, of course, comes the bombshell, another dreadful phone call with an echo too eerie to be believed. This time it was a grown-up niece, one of Elizabeth’s daughters on the line, giving her aunt the news about Kathleen Peterson: dead at the bottom of the stairs.
Blair: I said, “Margaret, what’s wrong?,” and she said, “Kathleen’s dead. She fell down the stairs—she had an accident. She fell down the stairs, and dad found her.” And I said, “Oh my god Margaret! Do you know what you’re saying?” I said, “The same thing happened to...” and she just cut me off and she said, “I know.’”
The sister of the woman in Germany felt she had no choice but to pick up the phone and talk to the detective working on the Kathleen Peterson case.
Blair: I said, “Are you aware that the same thing happened to Margaret and Martha’s mother and Michael Peterson was the last one to be with her?’”
Detective Art Holland did NOT know that.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: What did you think at that moment?Det. Holland: Well, I was overwhelmed with, you know, here I have two cases. Two women that are dead. Two women that appeared to die the same way. Two women that are associated with Michael Peterson. Lightning don’t strike the same place twice.
The detective huddled with the prosecutor’s office and a decision was made to investigate anew the death of Elizabeth Ratliff, who’d died 16 years before in another country.
Her body had been brought back to Texas where she was buried. Now at the urging of authorities in Durham the dead woman’s sisters agreed to an exhumation.
Det. Holland: They didn’t feel comfortable with her cause of death, the way it was ruled in 1985.
For Detective Holland, a 22-year veteran, the Peterson case was suddenly exposing him to a wider world than Durham County. He made arrangements in Texas to recover Elizabeth Ratliff’s burial vault.
In April 2003 in Bay City, Texas, south of Houston, the remains of Elizabeth Ratliff, the onetime friend and neighbor of Michael Peterson, the mother of his two adopted daughters, were exhumed and placed under Detective Holland’s guard.
The body was driven to North Carolina and taken to the medical examiners office where it would be studied by the same medical examiner who’d ruled Kathleen Peterson’s death a homicide.
Murphy: There was a risk here wasn’t there? If you opened that coffin and found that the authorities in Germany had been correct in ruling it a death by natural causes..Holland: We just decided that it needed to be done.
The detective nervously peered through a morgue window as the M.E. prepared her tools, then began looking closely at the injuries to the head of the woman from Germany.
She was finding lacerations, deep injuries to the scalp. Seven of them.
Murphy: What are you thinking as you are watching the process?Det Holland: I am thinking that my case is getting a whole lot better.Murphy: What did the M.E. find in terms of injury to her head?Det. Holland: The M.E. found that she had multiple lacerations to her head that were consistent with blunt force trauma. It was...Murphy: Not a cerebral hemorrhage?Det. Holland: Not a cerebral hemorrhage.Murphy: She’d been bludgeoned?Det. Holland: Exactly.
News that the medical examiner believed Elizabeth Ratliff to be a homicide victim was a deep shock to her sister up in Rhode Island.
Detective Holland had called right away.
Margaret Blair: He said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ and I said yes. And he said, ‘Your sister didn’t fall down the stairs. This just opened up all the questions that we had that were never really answered.’
So now there were two women in Michael Peterson’s life both lying dead in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs and the medical examiner in North Carolina believed each was a homicide.
Eerily similar circumstances but was there any hard evidence to link the earlier death to Peterson? The pressure was on the investigators.
The trial date was only a month away when Detective Holland took the second plane ride of his life. This time to Germany, to Grafenhausen.
There he inspected the staircase where Ratliff died.
Talked to onetime neighbors and reviewed what little official German paperwork there was on the death. And then he flew back home to North Carolina.
But were any of the detective’s findings and suspicions about what might have happened in Germany years ago admissible in the case of Kathleen Peterson?
For months there was courthouse buzz about whether the prosecutor would even try to get the mysterious Elizabeth Ratliff story heard by the jury.
In the end, the state decided to go with it.
Jim Hardin, prosecutor: We decided that there were sufficient similarities that it was admissible. We felt we were on very strong solid legal ground to introduce that.
The defense, naturally tried to block any testimony about another dead woman on a staircase.
Dave Rudolf, defense: I still think legally it was irrelevant...
The trial judge agreed with the state’s motions to admit testimony about the death years ago in Germany. The story of Elizabeth Ratliff would be recounted for the jury, almost as a mini-trial within a trial.
And the state hoped to prove more than a creepy co-incidence.
Hardin: We felt like this was the blueprint. He had seen it, been involved in it, in Germany. He knew what had to happen for it to look like, feel like, and persuade people that it was an accident because it had happened before.Murphy: So, whether what happened in Germany was an accident or not, it was a learning curve on how one could benefit?Hardin: It was the blueprint for this case.
The eyewitnesses to the death scene in Germany were about to tell what they saw that day and could never forget...blood spattered up the stairwell—so much like the bloody staircase on Cedar Street.
Kathleen Peterson dead at the bottom of one in North Carolina.
Elizabeth Ratliff at the bottom of another in Germany.
Both women in Michael Peterson’s life.
Now it was eerily as though the murder trial in North Carolina was continuing with a substitute victim...the neighbor and friend standing in for the wife.
But the state drew up just short of accusing Michael Peterson of murder in Germany years ago by the same m.o.—a bludgeoning homicide disguised as a fall down the stairs.
Jim Hardin, prosecutor: What we wanted to show was the similarities. The scene was very very similar to what we had in Kathleen’s death.
Just as he’d done in setting the scene in the house when Kathleen Peterson died, the prosecutor led a parade of witnesses through their stories about what they saw and heard in November 1985 at a residence in Grafenhausen, Germany.
The victim’s nanny from those days testified about making the awful discovery when she came to work early in the morning.
Prosecutor: Once you put the key in the door and opened the door what happened next?Former nanny: I see all the lights are on and I see this body lying there.
Dead or alive she didn’t know. The nanny told the court she ran upstairs to her employer’s bedroom to grab the phone to call the Peterson’s for help but the line was dead.
At first she wasn’t even sure the person on the stairs was her boss, Liz, but when the nanny came back downstairs there was no doubt.
Former nanny: I see that these boots and feet were Liz’s. The body was Liz, on the stairs. She had boots on.Prosecutor: Were they a certain type of boot?Former nanny: They were snow boots.
Snow boots that Elizabeth routinely took off and left by the front door. Why was she still wearing them in the house? The state was implying that Michael Peterson had killed the woman before she’d had a chance to remove them.
The former nanny told the court she ran down the street to get Michael Peterson. She remembers him coming back to the house and taking charge.
Former nanny: He says ‘She was dead’, and I say ‘No no, I felt her, she is warm.’ And he said ‘She is not warm Barbara, and he took me by the arms and said she is not warm Barbara, she is dead.’ The warmth comes from the floor heating.”
Soon the German police showed up and Michael Peterson explained to them what likely had happened.
Former nanny: Michael was speaking to authorities. He was telling them there had been an accident.
Now came the payoff for the prosecution. Elizabeth’s friends from Germany testifying to what they saw that day at the bottom of the stairs. Vivid memories so like testimony already heard by the jury in the Kathleen Peterson death. Suspicious looking blood stain stories:
Surely the jury couldn’t miss how eerily similar the eyewitness testimony from Germany seemed to the accounts told by those arriving at the Kathleen Peterson scene. An otherwise healthy woman, dead at the bottom of a staircase, pooled in blood. But unlike the authorities in North Carolina, the German officials didn’t question the amount of blood they found. The accepted the theory of the friend—Michael Peterson—that the woman had died in a fall. Very little investigating was done and the death was ruled the result of natural causes.
The prosecution called this U.S. Army pathologist, who’d performed the autopsy on Ratliff in Germany years before. He testified that he did see lacerations on the back of her head, but determined that the woman died of a cerebral hemorrhage, partly because authorities did not think there had been foul play.
Authorities in Germany felt the most likely scenario was that Ratliff blacked out and fell down the stairs, causing lacerations.
Prosecutor: How many did you locate on Ms. Ratliff’s head if you remember?Pathologist: More than four.Prosecutor: Could there have been as many as seven?Pathologist: Yes.
Another weird parallel. Seven lacerations: exactly the same number that the medical examiner had found on the scalp of Kathleen Peterson.
The M.E. who’d studied the exhumed body of the woman from Germany told the jury what she found—homicide. Homicide of the mother of the two young women sitting in court in support of their step-father Michael Peterson. It was industrial-strength innuendo that Peterson was somehow involved in the homicide of Elizabeth Ratliff without actually accusing him or suggesting a motive as to why he wanted the family friend dead.
The defense was going to refute the testimony by arguing: coincidence but so what?
Rudolf: Even if, Elizabeth Ratliff had died from a fall down the stairs in Germany in 1985 is that such an amazing coincidence? Falling down the stairs as a cause of death is a heck of a lot more common, for example, than drowning. Weird things happen all the time. The evidence will show that Michael Peterson had no reason to hurt Elizabeth Ratliff and didn’t. What we have, we contend and we will show you, is a false coincidence.
The defense responded to the new charge as it had with Kathleen Peterson, by calling its own expert, the same neuropathologist who’d testified earlier. The expert said he thought German authorities got it right the first time: Elizabeth Ratliff DID die of a cerebral hemorrhage, a stroke.
Rudolf: Is the blood in all of the ventricles of the brain consistent with a stroke from natural causes?Expert: It is consistent.
That close friend of Elizabeth Ratliff’s who’d testified so forcefully about her memories of blood-spatter up the staircase wall— on cross-examination by the defense added some perhaps important detail about the dead woman. The friend recalled she’d complained of not feeling well in the days leading up to her death.
Defense: Shortly before she died, you talked with Liz and she talked about suffering some severe headaches?Shumacker: Liz looked very bad. She was pale, she looked bad. And she held her head like this and I asked her what was wrong and she said she had the most severe headache. And that she did make an appointment to go to the medical facility. And she had an appointment Tuesday.Defense: The following week?Shumacker: Yes.Defense: And she never got to see a doctor?Shumacker: No.
The defense, that had accused the police officers in North Carolina of misunderstanding and failing to preserve their crime scene, had nothing but confidence in the work of the German and U.S. authorities in Grafenhausen.
The defense questioned this former U.S. military authority who’d been dispatched to the scene there.
The defense elected not to quiz the nanny about what she saw that morning in Germany because attorney Rudolf believed her account spoke to Peterson’s non-involvement in the death.
Rudolf: The evidence was that when the nanny found her at eight o’clock in the morning, her body was still warm. It was not stiff, there was no rigor. And a telephone that she only brought into the bedroom when she went to sleep at night was there in the bedroom.
Therefore, reasoned the defense—the phone in the bedroom proved that Elizabeth Ratliff went to bed that night. Whatever happened to her didn’t happen that night.
Rudolf : All of the evidence was if there was a homicide, it was that morning, not the night before. Now where was Michael Peterson that morning? He was at his wife’s side in bed in his own home.
In the end, the defense treated the death in Germany as, granted, maybe a weird coincidence, but legally—here, now in Durham North Carolina—completely irrelevant.
Still, how many guys have two women in their lives dead at the bottom of the stairs?
It was a question of relevance for the jury, which was about to get the case involving Michael Peterson’s dead wife. Fiendish killer or grieving husband wrongfully accused? Which would the jury decide?
Michael Peterson, Viet vet, novelist, political gadfly, father, brother, husband... was he also a murderer?
In final arguments the prosecutor had one last chance to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt, that Kathleen Peterson did NOT die in an accidental fall.
Prosecutor: How in the world can somebody get 38 injuries over their face back head and hands arms and wrists by falling down some steps? Even if there are two falls. There is absolutely no way that makes common sense.
Then the defense’s last argument:
Dave Rudolf, defense attorney: The real issue, the one that you need to focus on, is whether the state has proven beyond a reasonable doubt with proof that fully satisfies and entirely convinces you that on the morning of Dec. 9the issue.
After more than three-and-a-half months of trial, the jurors would finally decide the fate of Michael Peterson. We spoke to 11 of the 12 jurors—among them: an accountant, a correctional officer, two retail sales people, a shipping coordinator, two computer operations specialists, a telecomunications analyst, and three nurses.
Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: Did you try to read his face, his demeanor, as he sat in the courtroom before you?Betty, juror: Looking at him you were not able to read him one way or the other. He was almost expressionless at times.Keith, juror: You really would like to believe that nobody is capable of doing what this man was accused of.
The jurors were understandably shaken by the crime scene photos in the stairwell.
Kris, juror: The first pictures we saw were overwhelming, of Mrs. Peterson in the hall and all the blood on the walls. I thought it was a tremendous amount of blood.Kelly, juror: I couldn’t imagine anyone receiving those types of wounds unless they fell from a very tall building.Shirley, juror: I’ve seen people hemorrhage, but I’ve never seen that kind of hemorrhage from someone’s head.
But they also acknowledged that accidents happen with sometimes unpredictable results.
Shirley: Well, people do fall to their deaths, that’s true.Murphy: Did you think maybe it might have happened the way the defense lawyer described it?Juror: Yes, I think there were times throughout the trial that I personally moved from one side to the other with regard to guilt or innocence.Murphy: Maybe she did fall. Maybe she did fall and maybe there was some confrontation.Betty: All these things are possible, weird things happen, freak things happen and maybe you know, maybe she did fall. And you know there is proof given to us that she was on these medications and she was wearing flip flops and they had been drinking wine. I really thought in my heart maybe this is an accident.
They took a first straw vote to see where everyone stood, and it turned out they were utterly divided—four guilty, three not guilty, five undecided. They went over the case again.
Several of the jurors who years earlier had watched the OJ Simpson case on national TV, felt that the defense’s medical examiner, reknown Dr. Henry Lee, who played a prominent role in the OJ trial would clear it up for them.
Tania, juror: When I found out he was coming, I expected for some reason, for him to solve it.Murphy: Dr. Lee explains all?Tania: Yeah.Kelly: I was probably more disappointed in him because. He could not definitely conclude, with, without a shadow of a doubt on his part that this was not a beating.
And if there was a beating some jurors weren’t at all sure the blowpoke was the murder weapon.
Betty: We were just blown out of the water with the blow poke, the blow poke, through the entire trial. I never believed that the blow poke was the weapon.
For some jurors, visiting the staircase during the field trip to the Peterson mansion helped them to determine whether the blow poke had been used.
Tanya: I don’t think you could swing it in that area- it was too small of an area so I had total disregard that the blow poke was used. It was too narrow of a staircase.Murphy: So that’s points for the defense right?Tanya: Yes, yes it was.Keith: But with that it was such a narrow space drunk or sober, I think you could have stopped yourself from sustaining so much damage falling down the steps.Murphy: Are you saying it backfired?Keith: Right, to me it did.
And what about the prosecutor’s motive for the crime? Debt piling up, family stress?
Kelly: Well, along with everyone else, and I think it’s kind of a consensus, we did feel that were financial stressors.
Was Brad, the male prostitute Peterson had tried to set up a date with, more evidence to the jury of a perfect domestic storm?
Richard: Brad was extremely self assured he appeared to be proud of what he did. His testimony was a definite rebuttal to the defense’s “soulmate” argument.
And what about Michael Peterson’s sexuality?
Murphy: Do you think she knew about his interest in homosexuality?Keith: I think she knew. I think she knew before that night.Betty: We’ll never know. All of it happened behind closed doors.
You might be surprised to learn that Germany—the near parallel death of Elizabeth Ratliff on a staircase 18-years before was not a factor in deliberations. One of their first group decisions was to dismiss the other death altogether.
Shirley: We decided that we had enough to deal with at 1810 cedar street and not to really talk about the death in Germany.Murphy: But it is very very interesting, you must all agree, that one man would have two women in his life both dead at the bottom of the stairs with suspicious injuries?Shirley: And we did all agree that that was somewhat suspicious but we didn’t know if we could go any farther with that.Keith: There were some similarities in the autopsy, which made it harder to set it aside.
So many ambiguities: Red Neurons, blood stains on the wall, dueling experts on the cause of death, interpretation of injuries. Could they reach a decision as instructed by the judge, certain beyond a reasonable doubt about what happened in that stairwell?
Betty: We really didn’t have the usual things. We didn’t have a murder weapon.Murphy: You didn’t have a confession...Betty: We didn’t have a confession, we didn’t have a clear-cut motive.
After hours of debate, they kept coming back to one single exhibit: the autopsy photos of the back of Kathleen’s head.
Murphy: By a show of hands who thought that the medical examiner photo of the injury to Mrs. Peterson was as convincing as anything else you heard in trial?Jurors: (All Raise Hands)
Friday morning at 11 a.m., four-days after getting the case, the jury announced it had reached a verdict.
The jury was coming in. It had a verdict. Pagers and cellphones summoned the prosecution and defense back to the courtroom.
The judge called the clerk to read the verdict to a hushed courtroom.
Guilty:Michael Peterson guilty of bashing his wife about the head and letting her slowly bleed to death.
The judge asked him if he wished to say anything. Peterson turned and mouthed a silent message to each of his children.
Then, he began life as a convict.
Peterson’s family sat stunned. Then sobs burst from daughters Margaret and Martha Ratliff: two young women who’d lost so much in their lives, both blood parents, their step-mother Kathleen, and now their adoptive father, going away forever.
During the course of the investigation and trial, the Ratliff girls had become estranged from other family members—their aunts—who believed Peterson guilty.
And the little girl down the street they used to play with and who then became their sister: Caitlin? They hadn’t spoken in more than a year. Michael Peterson was now the uncrossable divide between them.
After asserting her father’s innocence to the cameras when he was indicted.
Caitlin, like the jury, had not been able to get past the autopsy photos and report. When she first read it she called her step-sister Margaret immediately.
Caitlin, Kathleen Peterson's daughter: I said, you need to read this, you need to understand that mom was not… she did not die from falling down stairs and she was beaten to death.
The sisters never spoke again. Caitlin had all her belongings removed from the house.
Caitlin: I’ve lost obviously far more than just my mother. I did lose my family and my home.Dennis Murphy, Dateline correspondent: Do you think Michael Peterson beat your mother to death?Caitlin: Yes. I absolutely do. There’s no doubt in my mind.Murphy: What do you think happened in their house that night?Caitlin: I think it was truly a culmination of a storm.
It was a storm that raged though a mansion on Cedar Street and swept away all it found there. Love and a sense of family was displaced forever by shame and a gaping horror.
Michael Peterson appealed his conviction. His lawyers argued that testimony about the death of Elizabeth Ratliff in Germany should not have been allowed into evidence. In September, a North Carolina court rejected the appeal. It now moves to a higher court.