Local News

Judge To Allow Written Affidavit From German Witness In Mike Peterson Trial

Posted August 26, 2003
Updated December 9, 2006

— A woman in Germany is sick and unable to travel to Durham to testify about Elizabeth Ratliff's death, but that will not stop her from telling the jury in the Mike Peterson trial about what she saw in 1985.

Ratliff, Mike Peterson's friend, was found dead at the bottom of a stairwell in Germany. Prosecutors said Karin Hamm, who lives in Germany, claims she saw Peterson running from Ratliff's home the night of her death, but she cannot testify in person because of a medical condition. The prosecution wants the jury to hear a statement from her instead.

"She goes as far as to adequately describe or very closely describe Mr. Peterson's clothing," Assistant District Attorney Freda Black said. "She said he was basically running and hurrying down the street."

With the jury out of the courtroom, defense attorney Tom Maher argued the written testimony is not good enough.

"In a scenario where Mr. Peterson's constitutional rights are at stake, this doesn't past muster," he said.

Judge Orlando Hudson disagreed and will allow the jury to hear it. Defense attorney David Rudolf said he was not happy with the ruling.

"It is probably the most astounding legal ruling I've ever seen," he said.

Earlier in the day, Margaret Blair, Ratliff's sister, remembered the day of Ratliff's death. She told jurors the first phone call she got came from Mike Peterson.

"Michael identified himself and said there had been an accident. My sister had fallen down the stairs and died," Blair said.

Blair described the emotional toll it took on her family.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done -- to tell my mother her daughter died," she said.

Ratliff's first autopsy said she died from a brain hemorrhage followed by a fall down the stairs. Dr. Larry Barnes, who performed that autopsy nearly two decades ago, admitted he could not recall the details of the examination now. Instead, he had to read from a report.

"As far as the autopsy itself, I remember very little except what is included in the autopsy report," he said.

Prosecutors believe the first autopsy was neither thorough nor accurate. In April, they had Ratliff's body exhumed and a new autopsy concluded she was killed. They believe Peterson killed Ratliff in 1985 and his wife, Kathleen, in December 2001.

Barnes testified autopsies were not his specialty.

"With respect to forensic autopsies, have you ever actually performed one, as such?" District Attorney Jim Hardin asked Barnes.

"Yes sir," Barnes responded.

"How many have you performed?" Hardin asked.

"Less than five," Barnes said.

Barnes did a medical autopsy on Ratliff, not a forensic autopsy. Forensic autopsies are considered more detailed and thorough.

On Tuesday, the trial will start at 11 a.m. with a special hearing to determine how Hamm's statement will be presented to the jury. Jurors are also expected to hear testimony from Ratliff's nanny, a woman who defense attorneys say will discredit Hamm.


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