Peterson Juror: Verdict Based On Physical Evidence Alone
Posted October 13, 2005 9:45 a.m. EDT
Updated December 10, 2006 9:06 a.m. EST
DURHAM, N.C. — A former juror in the Michael Peterson murder trial said the jury's guilty verdict boiled down to what happened inside the stairwell at 1810 Cedar St. on Dec. 9, 2001 -- the physical evidence.
Peterson's sexuality and the death of a family friend are the focus of an appeal that the former Durham novelist and his legal team hope will persuade a panel of North Carolina Appellate Court judges to decide in his favor and grant him a new trial.
Attorney Tom Maher argues that testimony from a male escort about Peterson's alleged bisexuality and the death of Elizabeth Ratliff, who apparently died as a result of a staircase fall 18 years earlier, were irrelevant to Peterson's trial and that Judge Orlando Hudson should never have allowed jurors to hear about it.
Ratliff, like Peterson's wife, Kathleen, was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in 1985. In both cases, prosecutors argued that Peterson had been the last person to see either woman alive.
At the time of Ratliff's death, medical examiners ruled the death an accident, prompted by natural causes. When prosecutors had Ratliff's body exhumed in 2003, however, a medical examiner found evidence that she had been killed. Prosecutors, though, were never able to connect Peterson to Ratliff's death.
But Ann Pennington, who served as one of the jurors during the three-month trial, said neither Ratliff nor the issue of Peterson's sexual preference was ever discussed in jury deliberations.
"We never based our decision on Mrs. Ratliff," Pennington said.
In a group interview right after the trial, jurors said they made a conscious effort not to talk about Ratliff's death.
"It was enough to deal with at 1810 Cedar St.; we couldn't handle two cases," said jurors Tonia Rogers and Paul Harrison in 2003.
During the trial, jurors heard from 66 witnesses and saw more than 500 pieces of evidence. Ultimately, they decided Peterson was guilty of beating his wife to death in the staircase of the couple's Durham mansion.
"The totality of the marks on her head; the time that expired after she fell and got back up; and blood on the bottom of her feet," Pennington said, was what ultimately led the jury to its conclusion.
Maher argues in the 96-page legal brief filed earlier this week that while Peterson's sexuality and Ratliff's death may not have come up during deliberations, he believes the evidence may have tainted some jurors' views of his client. That, he says, is not fair.
While Pennington said she has never had second thoughts about the verdict, she admitted that she did think about the Ratliff evidence.
"I wondered how the same thing happened repeatedly," she said. "It did have a bearing in my mind, but not in the decision the jury made."
Other jurors also told WRAL that they believe they issued the proper verdict; one even said that if there were to be a new trial, she thought Peterson would still be found guilty.
Experts said it could be next spring before a decision on a new trial comes. Now that Maher has filed paperwork, the North Carolina attorney general's office must now review the argument and issue its reply.
Because the Peterson case is complex and the initial brief is so involved, there will likely be an extension to the 30-day time period the state has to respond.