RALEIGH, N.C. — The prosecution of former Durham mayoral candidate Michael Peterson was filled with inflammatory, irrelevant evidence and judicial mistakes that prevented him from getting a fair trial on charges of murdering his wife, his lawyer told a state Court of Appeals panel Tuesday.
The novelist and newspaper columnist was convicted more than two years ago of first-degree murder in the death of his wife, Nortel Networks executive Kathleen Peterson.
Chapel Hill defense attorney Thomas Maher argued Tuesday before a three-judge appeals panel that Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson repeatedly erred in Peterson's trial by allowing evidence that had no clear connection to the case, and asked the panel to overturn his client's conviction.
"We think the issues in this case -- none of them would be harmless by themselves," Maher said. "But clearly, to the extent that there are multiple errors, it is much tougher for a court to say 'Well, that didn't cause a problem.'"
In particular, Maher cited testimony regarding Michael Peterson's bisexuality and evidence comparing Kathleen Peterson's death to that in 1985 of Elizabeth Ratliff, a friend of Peterson and his first wife when they lived in Germany, who like Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the foot of a staircase. Ratliff is also the mother of two girls who now call Peterson their father.
Prosecutors implied that Peterson was guilty of killing Ratliff, though he was never accused of doing so, and that Kathleen Peterson was killed during an argument after she found e-mail correspondence between her husband and a male prostitute, though they presented no proof she had seen the messages.
"What I saw was a connecting problem with a number of the pieces of evidence, which is the level of speculation you have to rely on to make it relevant," Maher said. "That was true with Ratliff -- you had to speculate he was responsible for it. It was true with their evidence about material on the computer -- you had to speculate that (Kathleen Peterson) found it and speculate that it led to a fight."
Peterson's team also complained that the court allowed speculative testimony about Kathleen Peterson's job security and finances as prosecutors tried to show a motive, and that police used excessively vague grounds to get the search warrants that allowed them to examine computers found at the house.
There was no indication when the appeals court would rule.
Kathleen Peterson was found Dec. 9, 2001, in a pool of blood in the couple's house in Durham. Peterson, 62, now serving a life sentence in prison, insists that she died in an accidental fall.
State attorneys said the defense opened the door for a discussion of Peterson's private life by raising the issue in opening statements and insisting that the Petersons' five-year marriage was a happy one.
Michael Peterson's correspondence with a male prostitute a few months before his wife's death indicated that picture was false, Assistant Attorney General Jack Barnwell argued. State lawyers also argued that the uncanny parallels between the deaths of the two women were drawn through forensic evidence and could not be ignored.
"The evidence was not just strong that (Kathleen Peterson's) death was homicide, it was powerful," Assistant Attorney General William Crumpler told the appeals panel.
He cited the testimony of Dr. Deborah Radisch, an assistant state medical examiner who performed autopsies on Kathleen Peterson and on Ratliff's exhumed remains, concluding that both women had been beaten to death.
But Maher said having the same doctor examine both women created a "problem of bootstrapping."
"You've got a weak case on both of them, but the state's argument seems to be 'Well, it couldn't happen twice.' And if you look at one it proves the other and if you look at the other, it proves the first," he said. "It's kind of like this hall of mirrors where everything gets expanded."
Peterson, a one-time millionaire, is currently serving out his sentence at Nash Correctional Institution, where he now makes $1 a day teaching GED classes to other inmates. He is also facing a wrongful death lawsuit filed by his stepdaughter, Caitlin Atwater. Atwater contends that Peterson "maliciously" assaulted her mother and caused her death. That trial is scheduled for June 19.