Local News

Attorney wants Mike Peterson murder case reopened

Posted August 20, 2008 4:30 p.m. EDT
Updated August 20, 2008 8:26 p.m. EDT

Mike Peterson was convicted in October 2003 of first-degree murder in the Dec. 9, 2001, death of his wife, Kathleen Peterson.

— A single, microscopic bit of feather listed in an SBI crime lab report could be the key to proving that Mike Peterson was not responsible for the staircase death of his wife nearly seven years ago, an attorney and former neighbor of the Durham novelist says.

Larry Pollard says he believes an owl, possibly mistaking Kathleen Peterson as prey, could have attacked the 120-pound, 47-year-old as she walked from her swimming pool to her kitchen on that warm December night in 2001.

It’s possible, he says, the owl swooped down, became entangled in Peterson’s hair as she pulled on it, and caused multiple bruises and wounds on her face, wrists and arms as well as seven distinct wounds on the back of her scalp, including two tri-pronged lacerations likened to the bird’s razor-sharp talons. (Watch the full interview.)

“The key thing about this feather is not the fact that we found a feather but the fact of where it was located when we found it,” Pollard said. “This feather is located entwined in Kathleen Peterson’s hair, and it is clutched in her left hand in the hair that was pulled out of the root from the ball of her head.”

The evidence was never examined and the owl theory, which has met with mockery and ridicule, was never brought up at trial. Pollard wants the feather and other forensic evidence reconsidered and plans Thursday to call on interim Durham District Attorney David Saacks to reopen the case.

Saacks has not commented on the theory or pending request to re-examine the evidence. (Should the case be reopened?)

“At this point, we do know that we have uncovered what we feel is a very explosive piece of physical evidence that is on her head that has never been tested and could possibly render exonerating evidence to Mr. Peterson,” Pollard said. “We are very hopeful of that.”

Emergency workers found Kathleen Peterson dead in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase in the couple’s Forest Hills mansion in the early hours of Dec. 9, 2001. An autopsy found she died from blunt force trauma to the head.

Mike Peterson, 64, who insists his wife died in an accidental fall, was convicted of first-degree murder in October 2003 and is serving a life sentence in prison. Last November, the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld his conviction.

Prosecutors were never able to establish a clear motive or produce a murder weapon. They argued, however, that he used a fireplace blow poke or a similar object to strike his wife in the head on the staircase and that she fell.

Pollard contends that Kathleen Peterson, under the influence of alcohol and medication, was attacked, ran inside the house, down the kitchen corridor to the stairs, fainted, got up and tried to climb the stairs before falling.

“Now, at first when you hear that, it sounds ridiculous, except when you look at the wounds, when you look at the fact that these birds are in our neighborhood and that they have been there for years and years and years," he said. "That they have this kind of characteristics of their talons that they do this kind of damage."

But Dr. Deborah Radisch, who conducted Kathleen Peterson's autopsy, says the evidence shows it is unlikely that an owl or any other bird could be responsible for wounds as deep as they were.

"The pattern of the lacerations [doesn't] fit the theory," Radisch said. "Each cut was completely through the scalp and to the skull. The science does not support it."

Former Assistant District Attorney Freda Black, who helped prosecute the case, also discounts Pollard's theory, saying Radisch's findings show Kathleen Peterson was the victim of a homicide. (Watch the full interview.)

"Because of Deborah Radisch's findings, that's why I could never entertain that theory," Black said. "She was positive in her mind and during her testimony that this was a homicide."

Pollard admits his theory seems ridiculous and that it will be difficult to have the case reopened, but he said the evidence merits another look.

"If you don’t see the evidence, if you don't see, feel, touch those talons, it’s hard to believe that a bird would have done something like this," he said. "It’s hard to believe that we might have made an innocent mistake."

"But when you only have the evidence of a body there with a lot of blood and no other evidence, it’s easy to kind of rush to judgment and say, 'This person did it' – especially if you don’t know a bird did it."

Black disagrees, saying she does not believe the theory can pass muster. It's time to move on, she said.

"There's already been so much time, energy, effort money spent on this one particular case that unless it's a legitimate theory – which I don't believe the owl theory is legitimate – I think, at some point in time, you have to let the case go. Let it rest," she said. "The case is over, as far as I 'm concerned, and that's unfortunate for Mr. Peterson."