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N.C. Trial Lawyers Group Supports Mike Peterson's Appeal

Posted October 12, 2005

— A former chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court and the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers have sided with a Durham novelist who claims he was wrongly convicted of killing his wife.

The academy has submitted a brief to the N.C. Court of Appeals saying that during Michael Peterson's 2003 trial, Judge Orlando F. Hudson improperly allowed evidence concerning the 1985 death of Peterson's friend, Elizabeth Ratliff, who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in Germany.

A medical examiner originally ruled Ratliff died from natural causes, but after Durham prosecutors had her body exhumed, they argued it proved Kathleen Peterson's death was no accident, and that it gave Peterson a blueprint for murder.

Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her home Dec. 9, 2003. Prosecutors argued that Michael Peterson killed her, but defense attorneys argued their client found her dead.

"They're both found at the bottom of a stairway; there're large amounts of blood present," said Durham's assistant district attorney, David Saacks.

Despite objections from defense attorneys, Hudson ruled jurors in Peterson's trial could hear about Ratliff's death.

"Judge Hudson abused his discretion in allowing this evidence in," said Kerry Sutton, of the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers.

Sutton, a friend of Peterson, and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice James Exum wrote a

brief

on behalf of the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers supporting the novelist's appeal.

In the brief, they attack the use of the Ratliff evidence. They claim the 18-year time gap between the two deaths was too long and that prosecutors never directly linked Peterson to Ratliff's death.

The bottom line, they said, was that the Ratliff evidence was irrelevant.

"It's like saying to you, 'Well, I have evidence you were driving badly six years ago and here you've gotten a ticket. I'd like to throw that evidence in to make you look worse,'" Sutton said.

The N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers typically backs between 15 to 20 appeals a year, usually at the request of the defense attorney and because they think a certain judicial error could have wide-reaching effects.

"It's going to come up again and which way the law leans makes a difference to all our clients," Sutton said.

Earlier this week, Peterson's attorney, Tom Maher, filed a

96-page brief

that cites dozens of court cases to back his assertion that Peterson did not get a fair trial.

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