Local News

Mike Peterson's lawyer attacks handling of murder trial evidence

Posted August 15, 2016 7:45 a.m. EDT
Updated August 15, 2016 6:14 p.m. EDT

— As Mike Peterson prepares for a retrial in his wife's death, his attorney questioned Durham County court clerks Monday about why evidence in Peterson's 2003 murder trial was mishandled over the years.

The 72-year-old Durham novelist and one-time mayoral candidate has always maintained his innocence and is seeking to get the charges against him dropped rather than face a new jury.

Peterson was convicted in one of the longest trials in North Carolina history of killing Kathleen Peterson on Dec. 9, 2001, at the couple's Durham mansion. The conviction was overturned eight years later when Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson ruled that a key prosecution witness had lied on the stand.

"It has gone on forever," Clayton Peterson said of the 15-year prosecution against his father. "Part of me has forgotten how long it's been because we've just been trying to live in the moment and appreciate what we have. But it really was a slap in the face this morning when Judge Hudson came back, and it just threw me right back to where we were 15 years ago. So, it's ripping up old wounds again."

More than 500 pieces of evidence were introduced in the three-month-long murder trial, but Mike Peterson's attorney says much of it is now in disarray.

Defense attorney Mary Jude Darrow showed photos Monday to assistant court clerk Angie Kelley depicting bags containing physical evidence from the trial ripped open and items strewn about inside boxes. Darrow also noted that evidence from at least two other cases was mixed in with items from Peterson's case.

Evidence in criminal cases is usually kept in sealed bags with a log of who handled it and when to establish a chain of custody. The chain ensures the evidence hasn't been tampered with or otherwise contaminated.

"I have no idea," said Kelley, who initially handled the evidence from the 2003 trial when asked how other material became intermingled with it.

Kelley and Clerk of Superior Court Archie Smith noted that evidence in all criminal trials was moved a few years ago when the new county courthouse opened. Before the move, evidence from the Peterson case had been stored in a jail cell on the top floor of the old courthouse.

"If you were to send this off for testing, nowhere would test this anywhere in the United States," said Jim Hedrick, a private investigator hired by Peterson's defense.

In an effort to undercut the defense's argument, Durham County Assistant District Attorney Jim Dornfried suggested that the evidence was already contaminated by various people handling it during the 2003 trial.

Peterson's defense also claims that police focused on him as a suspect and never considered anyone else because he had written several columns for the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper critical of the Durham Police Department.

Dornfried called the defense's request for police emails about Peterson in the four years leading up to Kathleen Peterson's death "a fishing expedition," adding that they are irrelevant to the investigation of her death.

Hudson questioned whether anyone was even using email in the late 1990s, and even if there were some messages, he doubted whether it still exists anywhere in the police department's archives.

"I'm denying (the motion) because I don't think that kind of information exists," the judge said.

He said he wouldn't rule on other motions until a hearing in November.