Local News

Mike Peterson's stepdaughter wants her $25M wrongful death judgment

Posted October 20, 2017 10:33 a.m. EDT
Updated August 30, 2018 1:09 p.m. EDT

— Eight months after Mike Peterson pleaded guilty to killing his wife in 2001, his stepdaughter wants to remind him he still must pay for the crime.

Caitlin Atwater Clark filed a motion Thursday to reinstate the $25 million wrongful death judgment Peterson agreed to pay a decade ago for the death of Clark's mother, Kathleen Peterson.

Kathleen Peterson was found in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase in the couple's Durham mansion on Dec. 9, 2001.

Although Mike Peterson has maintained that his wife died after falling down the stairs, he was found guilty following a three-month trial in 2003 of beating her to death and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. After more than eight years in prison, he was granted a new trial in December 2011 when Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson ruled that a key prosecution witness had lied on the stand during the trial.

That trial never came to pass, however, as the 73-year-old novelist and one-time Durham mayoral candidate entered an Alford plea on Feb. 24 to a charge of voluntary manslaughter. Under an Alford plea, a defendant can maintain his or her innocence while acknowledging prosecutors have enough evidence for a conviction.

Hudson sentenced Peterson to 64 to 86 months in prison and gave him credit for the 89 months he had already spent behind bars, allowing him to walk out of the courthouse a free man.

Clark originally filed her wrongful death lawsuit in October 2002, and she and Peterson reached the $25 million settlement more than four years later. By that time, an incarcerated Peters had filed for bankruptcy.

"Mr. Peterson doesn't have money," his attorney, Kerry Sutton, said when the settlement was reached. "He specifically told me that he hopes this gives Caitlin some peace to close this legal chapter of her life."

As part of the settlement, Clark agreed to stay the judgment until Peterson's criminal appeals were exhausted, but she would be allowed to reinstate it if he were ever exonerated.

According to Clark's motion, filed by attorney Jay Trehy, Peterson hasn't yet paid a penny of the judgment, the $1,486 in Clark's legal fees he's supposed to cover or any of the interest that keeps piling up on the judgment – it's now estimated at another $30 million.

She filed a second motion Thursday to gain custody of all of the evidence from the 2003 murder trial, saying that she would need it in a civil trial if Peterson were to challenge the decade-old settlement.

Peterson's longtime defense attorney, David Rudolf, has already filed a motion to get feather fragments collected after Kathleen Peterson's death so that they could be examined by an expert at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The so-called "owl theory" has long been put forward as an alternative hypothesis to Kathleen Peterson's death by those who believe her husband didn't kill her.

Several "raptor experts" have suggested the wounds were the result of an owl attack. Kathleen Peterson was putting Christmas decorations on her lawn the night she died, and an owl could have mistaken the decorations for prey and gone after her because she was near them, according to Rudolf's motion.