Local News

Peterson Case Goes to N.C. Supreme Court

Posted September 10, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT
Updated September 11, 2007 5:22 a.m. EDT

Novelist and former Durham mayoral candidate Michael Peterson was convicted Oct. 10, 2003, of first-degree murder in the Dec. 9, 2001, staircase death of his second wife, Kathleen.

— The state Supreme Court on Monday heard the appeal of Durham novelist and former mayoral candidate Michael Peterson to overturn his first-degree murder conviction in his wife's death.

Peterson, 63, was convicted on Oct. 10, 2003, in the death of Nortel Networks executive Kathleen Peterson, 48, who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their Cedar Street mansion on Dec. 9, 2001.

Medical examiners ruled she was beaten to death, but Michael Peterson has maintained she died from an accidental fall that resulted from a mixture of alcohol and medication.

"She died accidentally in a fall," Peterson's appellate lawyer, Tom Maher, told the judges Monday. "This is far from an overwhelming case for the state."

But Assistant Attorney General William Crumpler told the justices that the state had a good case, with one question the central issue at trial: Was Kathleen Peterson's fall an accident or a beating?

"One cannot look at the pictures of the blood on the walls and the stairways of the Peterson home without common sense saying this was no accident," Crumpler said.

Prosecutors contended that Peterson wasn't making any money, and his needs put a strain on his wife's executive salary. Maher said the couple had credit-card debts but made enough money to maintain their lifestyle.

Elizabeth Ratliff was Peterson's friend. She was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in Germany in 1985.

Monday, Peterson's two sons from a previous marriage, his ex-wife and Ratliff's two daughters, of whom he took custody after her death, attended the session.

"It definitely – when the last appeal didn't go through -- it makes you a little more nervous each time, but there's great optimism, and we just really hope it works out, because we truly believe he's innocent," Peterson's younger son, Todd, said. "And it breaks our heart seeing our father in prison."

"My father is innocent," Peterson's other son, Clayton, said. "We love him. He loves us. He loved Kathleen. And we believe that justice will set him free."

Kathleen Peterson's daughter, Caitlin Atwater, and sister, Lori Campell, also attended Monday’s proceedings. Atwater declined to comment, but Campell said that despite the arguments she is still convinced about the facts.

"It's been six years, and it hasn't changed the fact that Michael murdered Kathleen," she said. "You all saw what he did to her."

In a 2-1 decision last September, the North Carolina Court of Appeals rejected Peterson's arguments that his five-month trial was filled with inflammatory, irrelevant evidence and judicial mistakes.

Maher argued that Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson repeatedly erred by allowing evidence that had no clear connection to the case, including the Nov. 25, 1985, death of Ratliff.

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. Prosecutors did not present proof she had seen the messages.

The appeals ruling said the evidence was admissible and did not affect the outcome of the case. The ruling also found that a Dec. 12, 2001, search warrant for computer evidence was “constitutionally deficient,” because it failed to specify the exact cause for the search.

In his dissenting opinion, Judge James A. Wynn Jr. said the state failed to carry its burden of proving that the "woefully" inadequate search warrant was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt and that the testimony about Ratliff's death should not have been allowed.

After oral arguments Monday, Maher said he thinks his best chance for Peterson to get a new trial could be based on the unconstitutionality of the search warrant, which was based on an investigator's opinion that the computer should be searched.

"This is the main step left for Mr. Peterson, in terms of direct appeals," Maher said. "If we don't prevail here, unless there's a federal constitutional issue, then this really is the end of the line for direct appeals."

"I'm feeling cautiously optimistic," he added. "I feel like we should win."

Also at issue is whether then-Assistant District Attorney Freda Black made improper closing statements that wrongly influenced the jury. In part, she compared defense witnesses with state experts, who she said “work for us,” meaning the state of North Carolina, and said jury members could trust them because they were “tried and true.”

A decision in the case could come in December, Maher said.

Earlier this year, Peterson, who is serving a life sentence without parole at Nash Correctional Institution near Rocky Mount, settled a wrongful death civil suit with Atwater, in the amount of $25 million.

But the settlement states that Peterson admits no guilt or liability in Kathleen Peterson's death.

In the settlement, Atwater agreed to stay her lawsuit until Peterson's criminal appeals are exhausted. If he is ever exonerated, she would be allowed under the agreement to reinstate the suit.

Peterson is indigent and filed for bankruptcy protection last year. Atwater’s attorney, Jay Trehy, acknowledged that Peterson probably would not be able to pay but said a civil judgment would show that Atwater's mother's life had value.

Peterson's attorney in the civil case, Kerry Sutton, said her client hoped the settlement would give Atwater "some peace to close this legal chapter of her life."