Judge blocks Mike Peterson's bid to end murder case
Posted November 14, 2016
Durham, N.C. — A Superior Court judge on Monday denied Mike Peterson's attempt to have the murder charge against him in his wife's death nearly 15 years ago dismissed, and a new trial in the long-running case has been set for next spring.
Peterson was found guilty in 2003 after one of the longest trials in North Carolina history of killing Kathleen Peterson on Dec. 9, 2001, but the conviction was overturned eight years later when Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson ruled that a key prosecution witness had lied on the stand.
The 73-year-old Durham novelist and one-time mayoral candidate, who has always maintained his innocence, will now be retried in May.
Hudson's ruling Monday left Mike Peterson's two daughters in tears. Son Clayton Peterson said he doesn't know how his father will get a fair trial.
"We’re very disappointed. We’re back to the beginning, basically, of a very painful chapter of our lives," Clayton Peterson said.
More than 500 pieces of evidence were introduced in the three-month-long murder trial 13 years ago, but Mike Peterson's attorney says much of it is now in disarray. Defense attorney Mary Jude Darrow says the condition of the evidence prevents her from getting it tested now for DNA or other details that might clear Peterson's name.
"Our hands are now tied because of what happened to the evidence," Darrow told Hudson Monday.
Evidence from at least two other cases has been mixed with items from Peterson's case, and bags that contained some evidence from the Peterson case have been ripped open, with the items strewn about inside boxes in an evidence storage area at the courthouse, Darrow noted in an August court hearing.
Evidence in criminal cases is usually kept in sealed bags with a log of who handled it and when to establish a chain of custody. The chain ensures the evidence hasn't been tampered with or otherwise contaminated.
"His right to defend himself has been totally undercut because, at this point in time, we cannot have reliable DNA testing of (Kathleen Peterson's) clothing," Darrow said.
Tim Palmbach, an associate professor and chairman of the Forensic Science Department at the University of New Haven, testified Monday that the results of any tests conducted now on the evidence would be unreliable because of contamination from other sources.
"Once you've got a contaminated piece of evidence, then that locks down your, prevents your capacity to have a meaningful analysis interpretation of the data," said Palmbach, who testified for the defense in Peterson's 2003 trial.
Under cross-examination, he acknowledged that it was impossible to say when any contamination occurred. Durham County Assistant District Attorney Jim Dornfried played snippets of video from Peterson's trial to show witnesses and attorneys handling the evidence to suggest that, not how the evidence was stored later, was the source of contamination.
Dornfried said Peterson's original attorneys could have asked that evidence be tested before the 2003 trial, but they chose to stick to the theory that Kathleen Peterson died after falling down a staircase and wasn't beaten to death. Because the defense argued the death was accidental, they never bothered with DNA evidence.
Although Palmbach still espouses the notion that an accidental fall led to Kathleen Peterson's death, Darrow said the defense isn't precluded from arguing in the retrial that someone other than Mike Peterson killed her. As such, DNA testing would be vital but is now unavailable to them, she said.
"Is it possible to get new DNA evidence in this case at this point in time with the evidence in the condition it's in?" Darrow asked.
"No," Palmbach replied.
Dornfried said there was no "bad faith" by court clerks or other authorities in how evidence from the 2003 trial was handled, and Darrow's speculation about exculpatory evidence on Kathleen Peterson's clothing doesn't amount to the state violating Mike Peterson's right to a fair trial.
Hudson noted that the state Court of Appeals has overturned several of his rulings finding due process violations by Durham authorities, and he wasn't about to hand them another opportunity to reverse his decision.
"I don't mind finding a due process violation if it's there, but the kind that (higher courts) are wanting the court to find apparently, since they reversed four of my cases, is the kind that Mr. Dornfried is arguing should be there," the judge said.