Local News

Mike Peterson Found Guilty Of First-Degree Murder, Taken To Central Prison

Posted October 10, 2003
Updated December 9, 2006

— A jury has found Mike Peterson guilty of first-degree murder.

Mike Peterson was charged with the death of his wife, Kathleen, at their home on Dec. 9, 2001. Prosecutors had said the Durham novelist beat his wife to death while defense attorneys claim Kathleen Peterson died from an accidental fall down a staircase.

Peterson, 59, remained motionless as the verdict was read shortly after 11 a.m. and the jurors were individually asked if they agreed with it. All 12 jurors, who had been deliberating since Monday afternoon, were unanimous with their verdict.

After the verdict was read, Mike Peterson turned around and told his family that he loved them and it was going to be all right. Peterson was then handcuffed and led out of the courtroom. He was automatically sentenced to life in prison without parole. He was reportedly crying as he was taken to Raleigh's Central Prison.

Two of Mike Peterson's adopted children, Martha and Margaret Ratliff, were in tears as the verdict was read. Todd Peterson, Mike Peterson's son, sat in silence. Candace Zamperini, Kathleen Peterson's sister, and Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen Peterson's daughter, were not in the courtroom when the verdict was read.

After the trial, sheriff's deputies escorted jurors out of the courtroom and from the courthouse. Jurors said they did not want to make any immediate comment on their decision, sending word through a court official that they would talk to the media as a group at a later date.

Members of the Peterson family returned to their Durham home. They did not talk to reporters.

Prosecutors argued that Mike Peterson was anxious about the couple's mounting credit-card debt, and may have killed his wife to collect on her insurance.

Defense attorneys said she may have fallen down a staircase in the couple's home while her husband was outside by the pool. They claim the couple was drinking and celebrating the sale of movie rights to one of Mike Peterson's books.

Jury selection in the trial began May 5, 2003. Opening statements took place July 1, 2003.

Prosecutors, Police Officials 'Pleased' With Jury's Verdict

After the court proceedings, members of the prosecution team said they were pleased and relieved about the jury's decision.

"At least from a common sense perspective, we made a good case," District Attorney Jim Hardin said. "We didn't pay much attention to the other peripheral stuff floating around, because we had a game plan and we stuck to our game plan."

Prosecutor Freda Black said she did not know how jurors came to their decision.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to talk to them at some point and find out," she said.

Hardin also responded to the criticism that he and the Durham Police Department had received for its investigation of the case and the trial.

"I don't get concerned about the criticism. It comes with the territory. We had a favorable, positive result in this case, and now it is time to move on to the next case," he said.

Detective Art Holland said he is hopeful the verdict erases any doubts about the professionalism of the Durham Police Department.

"We've been criticized and attacked. and the Durham Police Department is one of the top police departments in North Carolina and we did the best job that we could," he said.

Late Friday afternoon, Police Chief Steve Chalmers released a statement, praising his department for doing the very best job presenting evidence in the case.

Kathleen Peterson's Sisters Glad To See Justice Served

Throughout the trial, Candace Zamperini and Lori Campell, Kathleen Peterson's sisters, had been steadfast in their belief that Mike Peterson killed their sister. After hearing about the verdict, they said jurors reached the right decision.

"This was not a case of winning a case or losing a case," Zamperini said of the guilty verdict. "This meant justice for my sister."

Campell said she began to worry that the trial would end with a mistrial.

"I was thinking this might be a hung jury, and saying: 'well, this means another trial,'" Campell said. '"Maybe it'll take two times.'

"Today, I put my children on the bus and went back to bed. It started off as a bad day, but it has become a good day."

Defense Attorneys Plan To Appeal Verdict

After the verdict, defense attorney David Rudolf told Judge Orlando Hudson that he plans to appeal.

Rudolf said there are many grounds for appeal such as the testimony of Brent "Brad" Wolgamutt, a male escort who testified about his e-mail correspondence with Peterson. Prosecutors claim Kathleen Peterson may have found information about her husband's alleged bisexuality.

Rudolf said another ground for appeal may be information regarding Elizabeth Ratliff, Mike Peterson's friend, who died in Germany nearly 20 years ago.

Like Kathleen Peterson, Ratliff was found dead at the bottom of a stairwell with deep cuts to the back of her head. Mike Peterson was allegedly among the last people to see Ratliff alive.

"The war isn't over. This battle is over. There will be another one," Rudolf said outside the courthouse.

Rudolf said he was stunned after hearing the verdict.

"This [verdict] came out of left field. In my mind, when the prosecution spends three months telling the jury that your client beat somebody to death with a blowpoke, and you bring in the blowpoke," he said. "If that is not reasonable doubt, I don't know what reasonable doubt is."

Rudolf also said the appeal could take nine months to two years, depending on how long it takes to file papers. He also said he planned to try to get Peterson freed on bond while the appeals process takes place.

Peterson Arrives At Central Prison

Mike Peterson arrived at the diagnostic center at Raleigh's Central Prison shortly after 2 p.m. Friday, where he will undergo a physical exam, psychological screening, substance abuse screening, IQ test, aptitude test and interviews.

The center serves as the admission point into the state prison system for male felons with sentences of 10 years or longer.

After completing testing at Central Prison's diagnostic center, he would most likely receive an assignment to another state prison which would become his long-term home.

Mike Peterson's legal troubles do not end with Friday's verdict.

Peterson still faces a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen Peterson's daughter. The suit accuses Mike Peterson of intentionally assaulting Kathleen, causing her death.

Atwater seeks damages for a number of reasons, including pain and suffering and what would have been her mother's future worth. The lawsuit does not list a total dollar amount.


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