Local News

First Witness Testifies In Mike Peterson Trial

Posted July 2, 2003 7:56 a.m. EDT

— 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 a fictionally idealized family life and, faced with debts that would destroy it, concocted a way to kill his wife so he could collect on her life insurance, a prosecutor said.

But Peterson's lawyer called the couple "soul mates ... They could finish each other's sentences," and said they had no problems with money.

The 59-year-old novelist and former newspaper columnist is accused of first-degree murder in the death of his wife, a telecommunications company executive. He could be sentenced to life without 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 they shared.

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 never seen the huge volume of blood he found around Kathleen Peterson's body resulting from a fall. He said he had tended to as many as 40 victims falls in 15 years. A towel placed under her head was soaked with blood, Rose said.

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

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

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

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

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

She had a blood alcohol content of .07 percent -- in North Carolina, .08 percent is the legal limit for driving. She also had suffered from headaches and dizziness for weeks and even lost her vision 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 Kathleen Peterson had a $1.4 million life insurance policy through her job.

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

"Kathleen's death -- accidental death -- would have then allowed him to continue to live the affluent, privileged life to which he had 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 concerned how much time Peterson spent working out at a gym, Rudolf said.

"There was no conflict about Nortel (where Kathleen Peterson worked). There was no conflict about her job," Rudolf said in opening arguments. "There was no conflict about money. There was no 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 Peterson because he had criticized them in a series of columns for

The Herald-Sun

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

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

Rudolf countered that a financial motive makes no sense. The Petersons 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 the day 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.


Kamal Wallace