Durham, N.C. — Durham novelist and one-time mayoral candidate Mike Peterson walked out of jail Thursday afternoon for the first time in more than eight years after posting bond while awaiting a new trial in his wife's death a decade ago.
On Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson said that Peterson should be granted a new trial, ruling that a key prosecution witness in his 2003 murder trial gave false and misleading testimony, which deprived him of his right to a fair trial.
"I have waited over eight years – 2,988 days, as a matter of fact, and I counted – for an opportunity to have a new trial," Peterson said upon walking out of the Durham County Detention Center. "I want to thank Judge Hudson for giving me that opportunity, so that I can vindicate myself and prove my innocence in a fair trial this time."
Peterson's first wife and son put up two properties in Durham to meet the $300,000 secured bond that Hudson set for his release. After posting bond, he headed to the home of a friend in Durham's Colony Park neighborhood, where he will be under electronic monitoring until his trial.
He said he plans to spend time with his family before speaking publicly about his case.
No date has been set for the retrial.
Kerry Sutton, a member of Peterson's defense team, said it is possible there might not be another trial.
"I believe we might be able to come to some sort of a resolution that is something short of a trial and put an end to this," Sutton said.
Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder in the Dec. 9, 2001, 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.
Prosecutors were never able to establish a clear motive and didn't find a murder weapon, and Peterson has long denied any involvement in her death.
After an independent review of the state crime lab last year found that blood evidence was misstated or falsely reported in about 200 criminal cases between 1987 and 2003, Peterson challenged his conviction. He argued that former State Bureau of Investigation analyst Duane Deaver misled jurors about blood evidence found in the Peterson home.
Deaver, whom the independent review linked to some of the most egregious cases of falsely reported evidence, was fired by the SBI in January.
Defense attorney David Rudolf relentlessly attacked Deaver's credibility during a week-long hearing to determine whether Peterson's request for a new trial would be granted. An SBI official testified that Deaver was known to be biased in favor of prosecutors, and blood evidence experts said the tests he conducted in the Peterson case were flawed.
Philip Isley, an attorney representing Deaver, said Thursday that he disagreed with Hudson's ruling, adding that he doesn't believe the analyst perjured himself or gave misleading testimony.
Rudolf predicted Wednesday that prosecutors would be handicapped at a second trial because all of the evidence connected to Deaver has been tainted.
"Nothing that happened at the scene once he got there can be trusted, and that severely limits what kind of evidence any blood-stain pattern analyst by either side can say at the next trial,” he said. "It’s going to be a very, very different trial because of that.”
Durham County District Attorney Tracey Cline has appealed Hudson's ruling, but she has declined to comment further on the case.
Irving Joyner, a professor at the North Carolina Central University School of Law, said Thursday that he expects a number of defense attorneys to copy Rudolf's tactics and file requests for new trials for inmates whose trials included testimony of blood evidence that can now be challenged.
"The basic thinking is that, if Deaver was able to do that – what he did in the Peterson and other cases – then it’s likely that other analysts did the same thing,” Joyner said. "Other attorneys will be doing exactly the same thing to establish that there existed a pattern and practice in the SBI of misconduct, shoddy and rogue science analysis resulting in the conviction of people."
Rudolf called Wednesday for a special investigator to review all of Deaver's cases with the SBI, noting that his work also helped convict Greg Taylor, who was cleared last year of a 1991 Raleigh homicide after spending 17 years in prison.
Joyner went further than that, saying that the North Carolina Supreme Court or the state Administrative Office of the Courts need to appoint someone to review testimony of blood evidence provided by all SBI analysts in recent years to help rebuild public confidence in North Carolina's justice system.
"People have been losing faith in the system here in North Carolina, and unless there is something done drastically to change that, I don’t know what it is going to mean for the continued operation of our criminal justice process," he said. "Government officials and judicial officials need to do something significant in order to restore the trust of people in the criminal justice process.”