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Expert calls SBI blood evidence tests in Peterson case flawed

Posted December 7, 2011

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— An expert in forensic sciences on Wednesday questioned the tests done by a former State Bureau of Investigation agent on blood evidence in the death of a Nortel Networks executive a decade ago.

Tim Palmbach, chairman of the Department of Forensic Science at the University of New Haven, who trains crime scene investigators, testified in a hearing to determine whether Mike Peterson will get a new murder trial.

Peterson, a Durham novelist and one-time mayoral candidate, was convicted in 2003 of the Dec. 9, 2001, beating death of his wife. Kathleen Peterson was found dead in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase in the couple's upscale Durham home.

His request for a new trial focuses on testimony provided during the 2003 trial by Duane Deaver, a blood analyst whom the SBI fired in January.

Palmbach, who also testified as a defense witness in Peterson's trial, said Deaver's claim that he could pinpoint where blood on the staircase came from is misleading and that the tests he conducted were flawed.

Deaver focused on only some of the blood droplets in the area and didn't disclose to jurors that there was other blood at the scene that didn't fit his findings. Also, many of Deaver's tests appeared to be used to confirm a theory rather than sort through the evidence for the most likely scenario, he said.

"One of the real no-nos and dangers in the field is you conduct a test and you stop, leaving behind other data,” he said.

During the 2003 trial, Palmbach said that the evidence in the home was consistent with Kathleen Peterson falling down the stairs. Durham County District Attorney Tracey Cline asked Wednesday if the evidence also could point to someone hitting her and causing her to fall, and he said that was a possibility.

Duane Deaver SBI says ex-analyst was biased

Palmbach's testimony continued defense attorney David Rudolf's attack on Deaver's credibility.

Earlier Wednesday, Rudolf and SBI Assistant Director Erik Hooks discussed an internal report on mock exercises the agency held to prepare agents to testify in criminal trials.

A supervisor praised Deaver in the exercises for his confidence and ability to put scientific evidence into layman's terms, but he said one of Deaver's major weaknesses was a "strong bias toward the prosecution."

"That's a real problem for someone who is an expert, isn't it?" Rudolf asked Hooks, who oversees professional standards at the agency.

"Yes," Hooks replied.

Deaver was one of only two SBI agents who did a crime "re-creation" as part of his analysis, Hooks acknowledged. A Kinston attorney said Tuesday that Deaver wasn't allowed to testify about one such re-creation that involved smashing a pumpkin with a two-by-four to simulate a beating death.

Re-creations are far different than trying to reconstruct a crime scene, Palmbach said.

While a scene reconstruction generates various circumstances for testing, a re-creation sets up tests to prove a specific theory, he said. If Deaver was biased toward the prosecution in a case, that could make his theory and tests one-sided, he said.

"It’s a great concern. If they have a prosecutorial bias, they are no longer objective. They have a horse in the race," he said.

Blood spatter analysis is an inexact science at best under ideal circumstances, let alone if the testing is biased, Palmbach said.

A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences on the reliability of forensic sciences found more research was needed and that some analysts overstate the evidence, he said.

"They are so far out of the bounds of the methodology, it goes beyond the scope of opinion. It just absolutely should not be so," he said.

Cline tried to downplay Deaver's firing, noting that he wasn't dismissed because of the quality of his work but because of his attitude and because a state judicial panel believed he was in contempt of court in another case.

An independent review of the SBI crime lab last year found that Deaver was linked to some of the most egregious cases where blood evidence was misstated or falsely reported in about 200 criminal cases between 1987 and 2003.

Cline also disputed Hooks' testimony from Tuesday that Deaver's field experience paled when compared to the credentials he presented when testifying at Peterson's 2003 trial. An SBI list of case reports Deaver worked on might not include cases where he went into the field and didn't file a report, Hooks acknowledged.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • ICTrue Dec 8, 2011

    Deaver should be serving a sentance equal to Peterson's plus anyone elses that he helped wrongly convict.

  • OGE Dec 8, 2011

    I hope he walks just so I can read all the "sky is falling" comments on here!

  • Inter Alios Dec 8, 2011

    December 8, 2011 11:25 a.m.

    Let me venture a wild guess: retired from a law enforcement agency.

  • pclong2214 Dec 8, 2011

    let's see now defense expert, paid for by the defense, disagrees with the state's evidence. isn't that what he's paid to do? go figure. must have been a slow news day.

  • SailbadTheSinner Dec 8, 2011

    “The blood spatter at the bottom of the stairs screamed, ‘homicide’. His wife was supposed to have fallen down the stairs, not from the top of a tall building.”

    That sounds true but based on some personal experience, I’m not so sure....

    Ever seen someone that is semi-conscious with a head injury sneeze or cough? If the mouth, nose, and sinuous cavity are filled with blood the results can look like the Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

    I think, perhaps, the problem here is that the significance of the blood splatter evidence was overstated at trial and was not properly rebuffed by the defense.

    As hard-nosed as I usually am about such things, I would say in this case let’s buy another trial. Yes, with public money. I would recommend that the prosecution team be a bit more careful this time....


  • zile1porkey Dec 8, 2011

    Get real people the man deserves a new trial Deaver lied it is what it is. If the evidence is there it will be presented in the new trial. A man was als executed on Deaver's watch to lie and hide the truth to make your track record look good is wrong we know they were people found not guilty due to this mess.

  • whocares Dec 8, 2011

    He does not deserve a new trial. He is GUILTY. He just wants to see his name in the paper and get some publicity. There were 2 women who supposedly "fell down the stairs" in his life, not to mention the distress and anguish he heaped upon Kathleen's daughter. He deserves to be where he is.

  • Retired07 Dec 8, 2011

    Forget Deaver. Anyone with average common sense and a picture of the stairwell can see this was a brutal beating. Don t fall for this weasel's story because he can afford lawyers. Let him rot in prison. He is about as innocent as the Taylor guy that is out right now walking among us while we try to convict the SBI.

  • seankelly15 Dec 8, 2011

    twc - "Well, at least he got a little time out of it. But he'll walk now. Maybe they can lock up the SBI dude in his place."

    This is ah hearing to determine if he should get a new trial... even if he wins he does not walk; he will be retried.

  • seankelly15 Dec 8, 2011

    goodgod - " So...you see nothing wrong with the lies, withholding of facts, etc that were used by the DAs and their witnesses?"

    We are not discussing generalities. Prove to me that the DA that prosecuted the Peterson case lied or withheld facts. Prove to me that any witnesses lied in the Peterson case.