Local News

Wrongful Death Suit Against Durham Novelist Slated For June Trial

Posted November 16, 2005
Updated December 10, 2006

— The daughter of a slain Nortel Networks executive who was found dead in her Durham home in December 2001 wants to make sure that her stepfather, Michael Peterson, never profits from her mother's death.

Shortly after the Durham novelist was convicted of killing his wife, Kathleen Peterson, in October 2003, Caitlin Atwater filed a wrongful death civil suit

against him -- which, on Tuesday, was scheduled to go to trial in June 2006. In the lawsuit, Atwater contends that Peterson "maliciously" assaulted his wife and caused her death.

Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson found Peterson was legally liable for his wife's death and Peterson's attorney did not fight the matter in court.

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

"If he were ever to write a book in prison, he wouldn't make any money off it," Trehy said. "It would go the victim of his crime."

Unlike the criminal trial, which lasted more than three months and has been the focus of a handful of documentaries and books, the civil trial is expected to be much shorter. Trehy said it would focus on the relationship Atwater had with her mother and how Kathleen Peterson's death has had an affect on her -- both emotionally and financially.

Trehy said no amount of money would replace Kathleen Peterson, and the civil trial would be about sending a message "to show that (her) life had value."

Attorney David Rudolf, who represented Peterson during his trial and still consults with him periodically, said Peterson believes this civil suit should not go to trial before the criminal appeals are exhausted.

Last month, Peterson's attorney, Tom Maher, filed a 96-page brief with the North Carolina Court of Appeals that is based on five points on which the case should be retried, including that jurors should never have heard testimony about Peterson's bisexuality or the death of a family friend. The appeal process is currently under way and a panel of judges could rule on the appeal this spring.

Peterson, who Rudolf said wants to be in the courtroom for the civil trial, is currently serving a life sentence at a Nash County correctional facility.

In June 2004, Atwater filed a lawsuit against Nortel Networks, which, according to the lawsuit, wrongly paid out nearly $400,000 in Kathleen Peterson's employee benefits to Michael Peterson after he had been arrested and indicted for his wife's death.

It said Nortel violated the federal common-law "slayer rule" when it paid a suspected killer under indictment. The slayer rule holds that killers may not profit from their misdeeds.

In September, Nortel settled the lawsuit with Atwater.

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