Appeals Court Won't Overturn Peterson's Murder Conviction
Posted September 19, 2006
DURHAM, N.C. — Durham novelist and convicted killer Michael Peterson's appeal is likely headed to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
A three-judge panel, with one judge dissenting, rejected Peterson's arguments that his trial was filled with inflammatory, irrelevant evidence and judicial mistakes that prevented him from getting a fair trial.
The decision comes nearly three years after a jury convicted him of beating his wife, Nortel Networks executive Kathleen Peterson, to death. She was found dead in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase in the couple's home on Dec. 9, 2001. Peterson, who is serving a life sentence in prison, insists that she died in an accidental fall.
His appellate lawyer, Thomas Maher, argued in an April hearing before the appeals court that Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson repeatedly erred by allowing evidence that had no clear connection to the case.
In particular, Maher cited testimony regarding Peterson's bisexuality and evidence comparing Kathleen Peterson's death to that in 1985 of Elizabeth Ratliff, a friend of Peterson and his first wife, who like Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the foot of a staircase.
Prosecutors implied that Peterson was guilty of killing Ratliff, though he was never accused of doing so, and that Kathleen Peterson was killed during an argument after she found e-mail correspondence between her husband and a male prostitute, though they presented no proof she had seen the messages.
Peterson's team also complained that the court allowed speculative testimony about Kathleen Peterson's job security and finances as prosecutors tried to show a motive; that police used excessively vague grounds to get the search warrant that allowed them to examine computers found at the house; and that the judge allowed prosecutors to make prejudicial statements in closing arguments.
The appeals ruling, written by Judge Rick Elmore, said the evidence about Peterson's sexuality, Kathleen Peterson's finances and Ratliff was fairly admitted. It also agreed that the search warrant was "constitutionally deficient" but had no ill effect on his defense because the material it produced simply corroborated evidence obtained by proper means.
Judge Jim Wynn dissented, saying three of the issues presented to the appeals court -- the warrant, the Ratliff evidence and the closing arguments -- should be reviewed by the state Supreme Court.
Wynn said the evidence obtained under the flawed warrant was not all corroborated elsewhere, and its admission was enough reason to give Peterson a new trial. He also noted dissimilarities between Ratliff's death and Katherine Peterson's, including the relationship of Michael Peterson with each woman and the fact that the contemporary investigation of Ratliff's death ruled it was due to natural causes.
"(T)here were not sufficient similarities between the deaths of Elizabeth Ratliff and Mrs. Peterson that a jury could make a 'reasonable inference' that Mr. Peterson committed the prior murder -- or that Ms. Ratliff's death was even a murder," Wynn wrote.
Maher told WRAL on Tuesday that the ruling frustrates him, and that he would appeal to the state Supreme Court, but did not have a timetable.
"(There's) a lot of frustration and disappointment," Maher said. "But we've talked through it. (Peterson's) prepared to go forward and recognizes this is not the end."
Peterson also faces a wrongful death lawsuit filed by his stepdaughter, Kathleen Peterson's daughter Caitlin Atwater. In the lawsuit, Atwater contends that Peterson "maliciously" assaulted his wife and caused her death.
Although Peterson was declared indigent and claims to have no money, Atwater's attorney, Jay Trehy, compares the civil suit to a safeguard. He said his client wants to make sure Peterson never profits from his crime.
The lawsuit was scheduled to go to trial in June, but was delayed indefinitely after Peterson declared bankruptcy and a federal bankruptcy judge ordered the civil proceedings to wait until Peterson's criminal appeal is settled, which could be another year.
According to Atwater's attorney, Peterson filed bankruptcy to avoid a civil trial.