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First Witness Testifies In Mike Peterson Trial

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DURHAM, N.C. — Opening statements in the Mike Peterson murder trial paint two very different pictures of the defendant.Is Peterson a loving husband wrongfully accused of his wife's murder or a cold-blooded killer?

The prosecution and defense began laying out their cases Tuesday.

Peterson, a Durham novelist, lived afictionally idealized family life and, faced with debts that woulddestroy it, concocted a way to kill his wife so he could collect onher life insurance, a prosecutor said.

But Peterson's lawyer called the couple "soul mates ... Theycould finish each other's sentences," and said they had noproblems with money.

The 59-year-old novelist and former newspaper columnist isaccused of first-degree murder in the death of his wife, atelecommunications company executive. He could be sentenced to lifewithout parole if convicted.

Peterson called police on Dec. 9, 2001, to report that his wife,Kathleen, had had an accident in the 10,000-square-foot home theyshared.

The first witness called to testify in the trial was paramedic James Rose,who responded to Mike Peterson's 911 call. He said he had neverseen the huge volume of blood he found around Kathleen Peterson'sbody resulting from a fall. He said he had tended to as many as 40victims falls in 15 years. A towel placed under her head was soakedwith blood, Rose said.

Michael Peterson had blood on his arms, legs and clothing andreacted to paramedics' questions with little more than a blankstare, Rose said.

In his opening statement, District Attorney Jim Hardin said thatPeterson doctored the scene to obscure what he had done, but wasgiven away by blood spatters that suggested he beat KathleenPeterson over the head.

"This defendant was attempting to stage certain aspects of thescene so it would appear how he wanted it to appear," Hardin said.

Defense attorney David Rudolf said experts will testify thatwounds on the back of Kathleen Peterson's head and the spatter inthe stairwell show it is more likely that she fell while climbingthe hard, oak stairs at about 2 a.m. The Petersons had just spentand evening drinking, watching a video and lounging at theirbackyard pool, he said.

"The truth is Kathleen Peterson, after drinking wine andchampagne and taking Valium, tried to walk up a narrow, poorly litstairway in flip flops and she fell," Rudolf said.

She had a blood alcohol content of .07 percent -- in NorthCarolina, .08 percent is the legal limit for driving. She also hadsuffered from headaches and dizziness for weeks and even lost hervision for 30 minutes at one point, Rudolf said.

Hardin detailed the couple's finances, saying the couple had$143,000 in credit card debt. Authorities have said that KathleenPeterson had a $1.4 million life insurance policy through her job.

"Michael Peterson, with that money, was going to be able topull himself out of the financial fire that he had built forhimself," Hardin said.

"Kathleen's death -- accidental death -- would have then allowedhim to continue to live the affluent, privileged life to which hehad been accustomed, even though he had no job," Hardin said.

Rudolf also said Kathleen's death has left a void in Mike Peterson's life.

"[It was] an accident which left Michael Peterson a wealthy man, but a very poor man in the thing that was most important to him. It left him without his soulmate," he said.

Rudolf said the Petersons' biggest disagreement concernedhow much time Peterson spent working out at a gym, Rudolf said.

"There was no conflict about Nortel (where Kathleen Petersonworked). There was no conflict about her job," Rudolf said inopening arguments. "There was no conflict about money. There wasno conflict about anything."

Rudolf also read from an essay that Kathleen Peterson's daughter, Caitlin, wrote years ago.

"From the beginning, I was in debt to Mike in my heart and mind for bringing back my mother's happiness," he read.

Rudolf said police wanted to believe the worst about Petersonbecause he had criticized them in a series of columns for

TheHerald-Sun

of Durham, including one in which he described thepolice as incompetent.

Prosecutors last week revealed their theory that Peterson killedhis wife because he feared she would lose her $145,000-a-year joband he wanted the couple's assets for himself. Kathleen Peterson,48, had recently been obliged to lay off co-workers at thestruggling telecom equipment maker.

Rudolf countered that a financial motive makes no sense. ThePetersons had more than $1 million in resources, plus $600,000 to$700,000 of equity in their house.

Hardin hinted at a possible murder weapon, saying a blow poke --a long, metal fireplace tool -- had vanished from the house on theday Kathleen Peterson died.

Hardin also did not mention Elizabeth Ratliff in his opening statements. Ratliff is Mike Peterson's friend, whose death was similar to that of his wife, Kathleen.

and

Kamal Wallace

 Credits

Julia Lewis, Reporter
Don Ingle, Photographer
Michelle Singer, Web Editor

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