Local News

Two decades later, Mike Peterson murder case still fascinates many

Posted December 9, 2021 6:00 a.m. EST
Updated December 9, 2021 8:51 a.m. EST

— Twenty years ago, a local business executive was found in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase in her Durham mansion, setting off one of the most notorious and longest-running criminal cases in Triangle history.

Days after Kathleen Peterson's death on Dec. 9, 2001, her husband, novelist and one-time Durham mayoral candidate Mike Peterson, was charged with murder.

Mike Peterson insisted that his wife died after falling down the stairs. But following a three-month trial in 2003 that included testimony from a male escort and evidence about a family friend who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in Germany years earlier, a jury convicted him of beating his wife to death. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The case became the subject of a documentary by a French film crew and remained in the public eye through Peterson's repeated appeals, a $25 million judgment in a wrongful death lawsuit awarded to Kathleen Peterson's daughter, Caitlin Atwater, occasional interviews from prison and alternative theories of Kathleen Peterson's death, such as an owl attack, offered by Mike Peterson supporters.

Peterson was finally granted a new trial in December 2011 when Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson ruled that a key prosecution witness, former State Crime Lab blood analyst Duane Deaver, had lied on the stand during the original trial.

Another five years of appeals and other legal wrangling ensued before Peterson finally agreed to enter an Alford plea on Feb. 24, 2017, to a charge of voluntary manslaughter. Under an Alford plea, a defendant can maintain his or her innocence while acknowledging prosecutors have enough evidence for a conviction.

Hudson sentenced him to 64 to 86 months in prison but gave him credit for the more than seven years he had already spent behind bars, allowing him to walk out of the courtroom a free man.

Fascination with the case only grew after his conviction.

Netflix repackaged an expanded version of the French documentary as "The Staircase," which became a national binge-watching sensation. Peterson appeared on the "Dr. Phil" daytime talk show, in which he again denied killing his wife. And HBO Max plans yet another version of "The Staircase," with Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth playing the role of Peterson.

Peterson, now 78, still lives in Durham.

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