Local News

Two Years After Conviction, Attorney Files Appeal In Peterson Murder Trial

Posted October 10, 2005
Updated April 4, 2007

— An alleged pursuit of a same-sex relationship and the death of another woman are two reasons why the attorney of a Durham novelist convicted of murder filed paperwork Monday for a new trial.

Two years to the day after a jury found Michael Peterson guilty of killing his wife, Kathleen Peterson, Chapel Hill 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.

Prosecutors, who have been adamant that Peterson's trial was fair and just, argued in 2003 that Michael Peterson killed his wife, an executive for Nortel Networks, on Dec. 9, 2001. Defense attorneys argued that their client found his wife dead at the bottom of a staircase in their Durham mansion.

Veteran Raleigh attorney Roger Smith said the appeals process is essentially a Monday-morning quarterback session against Judge Orlando Hudson, who presided over the trial.

"Everytime a judge makes a decision, he may make it correctly or incorrectly," Smith said. "So, all decisions a judge makes may be subject to the appeal of error."

For example, in the brief, Maher questions whether the court mistakenly allowed irrelevant and prejudicial evidence in the 1985 death of Peterson's friend, Elizabeth Ratliff, whose cause of death was similar to Kathleen Peterson's. Medical examiners concluded Ratliff was probably killed after prosecutors exhumed her body from her Texas grave.

Prosecutors said they introduced the Ratliff case to jurors to show a pattern with Peterson, who was the last person known to be with Ratliff. Maher, however, contends that because prosecutors could not prove Peterson killed Ratliff, it had no business in the courtroom.

Maher also asks in the brief if Hudson erred in allowing evidence that indicated Peterson may have been bisexual. During the trial, a male prostitute testified that he and Peterson had exchanged sexually explicit e-mails.

Maher argues that Peterson's apparent bisexuality is irrelevant and that the testimony biased the jury. The assistant district attorney at the time, Freda Black, however, told WRAL in August that the prosecution wanted to refute the defense's claim that the Petersons had an ideal marriage.

"This is not about who's telling the truth and whether he's guilty or not, it's about whether he had a fair legal process," Smith said.

It is expected to take the panel of three appellate judges months to examine all the arguments Maher presents. If the judges vote in Peterson's favor, he would be granted a new trial.

Over the summer, one analyst told WRAL that Peterson's appeal might be difficult because many believe Peterson had such a highly regarded defense team that included famed defense attorney David Rudolf.

Testimony in Peterson's trial lasted 54 days and consisted of 66 witnesses and more than 500 pieces of evidence.

On Oct. 10, 2003, a jury found the extent of Kathleen Peterson's injuries and the blood evidence overwhelming and concluded that Peterson was guilty.

Now sentenced to life in prison, the 61-year-old one-time millionaire spends his days teaching GED classes to other inmates at the Nash Correctional Institution.


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