Local News

Jury Selection Begins In Mike Peterson Murder Trial

Posted May 5, 2003

— It's one of the highest-profile cases in the Triangle. And Monday, lawyers on both sides of the Mike Peterson murder case begin what could be an exhausting search for 12 impartial jurors.

The odds of finding someone who hasn't heard about the trial could be pretty slim, considering how the story has been in the media for 17 months. Almost immediately after Kathleen Peterson's death in December of 2001, Mike Peterson has become a household name in the Triangle.

That means potential jurors will be picked very carefully. They'll have to fill out a 100-question survey asking them what they heard about the case and how they heard it. They'll also be asked about everything from their background to their views on homosexuality.

The selection process will be a strategic one for both the defense and prosecution, as well as long, drawn-out and tedious. Jury selection is expected to take at least two weeks.

Once the trial gets under way, Peterson may be judged as much for the 1985 death of a friend in Germany as for his spouse's death.

The writer of three novels, the 59-year-old Peterson is accused of beating his wife to death in their sprawling Durham home on Dec. 9, 2001. Peterson told police that he found her body lying in blood, claiming she either fell down steps or was attacked.

In the meantime, Peterson's lawyers said they will investigate the death of Elizabeth Ratliff. Her body also was found at the bottom of bloodstained stairs at her home in Germany hours after Peterson walked her home from dinner.

Defense lawyer David Rudolf has been to Germany to investigate Ratliff's death, but that was when it was believed to be an accident.

An autopsy conducted in April shows Ratliff's death was a homicide. Rudolf said his team will have to go back to Germany to look for possible suspects.

Peterson was one of the last people to see both Ratliff and his wife, Kathleen, alive.

Durham District Attorney Jim Hardin said last week in court that evidence in the Ratliff case was critical to the Peterson prosecution. He would not give details Judge Orlando Hudson and refuses to discuss the case.

Peterson has denied involvement in either death and contends both were tragic accidents. He has been immersed in criminal proceedings almost from the time he found his wife's body after a night of celebrating the sale of one of his books for a movie.

"He's never had a chance to really grieve the death of his wife," Rudolf said. "He very much wants to get this behind him so he can try to put his life back together in some sort of reasonable way."

Hardin had Ratliff's body exhumed last month in Bay City, Texas. It was brought to North Carolina for an autopsy that concluded Ratliff was a murder victim, not the victim of a stroke, as the first autopsy concluded.

Unless the prosecutor and his assistants decide against introducing the Ratliff evidence, Peterson will have to sit through the telling of the deaths of two people he knew well. He even raised Ratliff's two daughters after their mother's death.

Rudolf said he will wait to see what the prosecutor brings before the jury before deciding whether to offer any defense testimony. It is not known whether Peterson will take the stand in his own defense.

"If I feel at the end of the prosecution's case that they haven't proved it, then I'm not going to put on a case," Rudolf said.

Peterson's first wife, Patricia, taught in a German elementary school with Elizabeth Ratliff, the then-43-year-old widow of Peterson friend George Ratliff. George Ratliff reportedly died in a 1983 military exercise.

On Nov. 25, 1985, a nanny found Elizabeth Ratliff at or near the bottom of the stairs at her German home. Peterson had walked Ratliff home from a dinner at his home the night before.

Rudolf said the body was warm when it was found, meaning the death occurred hours after Peterson had left Ratliff.

After Ratliff's death, Peterson adopted and raised her two daughters, Margaret, now 22, and Martha, 20, both college students.

Charged 1½ weeks after his wife's death, Peterson sat in jail about three weeks. He was released on $850,000 bond after Hardin said he would not seek the death penalty.

Peterson is a former newspaper columnist for

The Herald-Sun

of Durham and former city council and mayoral candidate. His novels include the 1990 book "A Time of War," and a 1995 sequel, "A Bitter Peace."

He and writer David Perlmutt produced the 1998 book, "Charlie Two Shoes and the Marines of Love Company."

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