October 23, 1943 near Nashville, Tennessee, USA) is a fiction
writer and politician. In 2003, he was convicted of the murder
of his wife, Kathleen Peterson.
Peterson graduated from Duke University with a bachelor's degree
in political science. He attended classes at the law school of
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
At Duke he was
the president of Sigma Nu fraternity and the editor of The
Peterson married Patricia Sue Peterson. They had two children,
Clayton and Todd Peterson. Clayton lived with Michael at the
time of Kathleen's death. In 1994 Clayton Peterson, who was then
a freshman at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke, tried to
bomb the main administration building at Duke.
In 1968, he
voluntarily enlisted in the Marines but was discharged four
years later when a car accident left him with a permanent
Patricia lived in Germany for some time, where they befriended
Elizabeth and George Ratliff and their two children, Margaret
and Martha. After George's death in Grenada, the Peterson and
Ratliff families became very close. When Elizabeth Ratliff died
in 1985, her two children became Michael's wards.
Michael moved in with Kathleen Peterson, a successful business
executive and socialite. They married in 1997. Kathleen's
daughter, Caitlin, and Michael's sons, Clayton and Todd, joined
the extended Peterson family.
Peterson wrote three novels: The Immortal Dragon, A
Time of War, A Bitter Peace, and a biography:
Charlie Two Shoes and the Marines of Love Company. He was a
controversial editorial columnist for the Durham Herald
newspaper, expressing opinions about the racial divide that
existed in the town where he lived.
years, Peterson made various attempts to win public office. It
was discovered during his 1999 mayoral campaign that he had lied
about his record of military honors.
On December 9, 2001, Michael
called the emergency line to report that he had just found
Kathleen and suspected that she had fallen down "15 or 20 stairs."
Peterson maintained that Kathleen must have fallen down the
stairs after consuming alcohol and valium. Toxicology results
showed that his wife's blood alcohol content was 0.07 percent.
The autopsy report concluded that the 48 year
old victim sustained a matrix of severe injuries, including a
fracture of the thyroid neck cartilage and seven lacerations to
the top and back of her head consistent with blows from a blunt
object. Kathleen's daughter had initially maintained Michael's
innocence and publicly supported him alongside his children but
reconsidered upon finding out about the results of the autopsy and
broke off from the rest of the family.
Experts concluded that the injuries sustained
were inconsistent with an accidental fall down the stairs. As
Michael Peterson was the only person at the residence at the time
of Kathleen's death, he was the prime suspect, and was soon
charged with her murder. He pleaded not guilty.
The trial drew media attention, as the details
of Michael's life emerged. Prosecutors (among them future District
Attorney Mike Nifong) attacked Peterson's credibility, focusing on
his alleged misreporting of his military service and what they
described as a gay life he led and kept secret.
The prosecution contended that the Petersons'
marriage was far from happy, suggesting that Kathleen had
discovered Michael's alleged secret gay life and wanted to end
their marriage. This scenario was offered as the probable motive
for Kathleen's alleged murder. The defense argued that Kathleen
knew about and accepted Michael's bisexuality and that the
marriage was very happy, a position supported by the Peterson's
numerous friends and associates.
The Durham coroner concluded that Kathleen had
died due to lacerations of the scalp caused by a homicidal assault.
There were in total seven lacerations to the top and back of her
head caused, according to the coroner, by repeated blows with a
weapon similar to a fireplace poker.
The defense disputed this finding as Kathleen's
skull had not been fractured by the blows nor was the brain
damaged. When asked by the defense if she knew of even one other
similar assault that did not cause such injuries the coroner
stated she did not research criminal cases so could not comment.
Suspicion falls on Elizabeth Ratliff's death
Ratliff, who died in Germany in 1985, was also found at the foot
of her staircase with injuries to the head.
An autopsy at
the time of her death concluded she had died from an
intra-cerebral haemorrhage secondary to the blood coagulation
disorder Von Willebrand's disease.
accounts, including his own, Peterson was the last person to see
court-ordered exhumation of Elizabeth's body a second autopsy in
April 2003, conducted by the same person who had performed
Kathleen Peterson's autopsy, concluded instead that she had died
due to fractures of the skull caused by a homicidal assault.
There were in total 7 lacerations to the top and back of her
head. The admissibility of this evidence in court was one of the
grounds for the subsequent appeal against his conviction, lodged
by Peterson's lawyers in 2005.
On October 10,
2003, after one of the longest trials in North Carolina history,
a Durham County jury found Michael Peterson guilty of the murder
of Kathleen Peterson. He was sentenced to life in prison without
the possibility of parole.
Denial of parole requires
premeditation, despite accepting the murder was a "spur of the
moment" crime the jury also found it was premeditated. As one
juror explained it, premeditated meant not only planning hours
or days ahead but could also mean planning in the seconds before
committing a spur of the moment crime.
Peterson is housed at the Nash Correctional
Institution near Rocky Mount.
Peterson's appeal was filed by
his defense counsel Thomas Maher, now serving as his court-appointed
attorney, and was argued before the North Carolina Court of
Appeals on April 18, 2006.
On September 19, 2006 the Court
of Appeals rejected Peterson's arguments that he did not get a
fair trial because of repeated judicial mistakes. The appeals
ruling said the evidence was fairly admitted. The judges did find
defects in a search warrant but said they had no ill effect on the
defense. Because the Court of Appeals' ruling was not unanimous,
under North Carolina law Peterson had right to appeal to the North
Carolina Supreme Court, which accepted the case.
Oral argument was heard on
September 10, 2007. On November 9, 2007 the Court announced that
it affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals. Absent a
reconsideration of the ruling or the raising of a federal issue,
Peterson has exhausted his appeal of the verdict.
As of Tue, Mar. 10, 2009 the request for a new
trial been denied.
Arguments for a
On November 12, 2008, J. Burkhardt Beale and
Jason Anthony, Richmond, Va. attorneys, who now represent Michael
Peterson, filed a motion for a new trial in Durham County court on
three grounds: that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence
about a tire iron; that the prosecution used an expert witness,
whose qualifications are disputed; and that one juror based his
judgment on racial factors not evidence. On March 10, 2009
Peterson's motion was denied by the Durham County Superior Court.
Other supporters of Michael Peterson have
raised a new theory of Kathleen Peterson's death, that she was
attacked by an owl in the home. Advocates of this theory allege
the existence of evidence to support it, namely that two of the
seven scalp wounds were tri-lobed and consistent with marks left
by talons and that in her left hand Kathleen clutched a clump of
her own hair that she had pulled out by the roots. Found entangled
in this hair was an Owl feather. A former prosecutor rejects the
theory as preposterous and the coroner stated that "the
evidence shows it is unlikely that an owl or any other bird could
be responsible for wounds as deep as they were". No motion for
a new trial has yet been filed on this point.
Suspicions: a documentary of the trial
The court case
generated widespread interest in part because of a televised
documentary named, Soupçons (Suspicions) which detailed
Peterson's legal and personal troubles. The six-hour film,
variously known as The Staircase and Death on the
Staircase, was released by Maha Productions in October 2004.
It was directed by French filmmaker, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.
documentary examined the role and behavior of the popular press
as it covered aspects of the case. It gives an intimate
depiction of the defense preparations for the trial.
started their project within weeks of the December 2001 murder
and Peterson's murder indictment; jury selection took place in
May 2003 with the case itself going to trial in July 2003. The
six hour documentary was assembled from over 600 hours of
status of the parties
In October 2002, acting as
administrator of Kathleen's estate, Caitlin filed a wrongful
death claim against Michael. In June 2006, he voluntarily
filed for bankruptcy. Two weeks later Caitlin filed an
objection to the bankruptcy. On February 1, 2007, Caitlin and
Michael settled the wrongful death claim for $25 million,
pending acceptance by the courts involved; finalization of the
settlement by the court was announced on February 1, 2008. In
the settlement, Michael did not admit that he murdered
Kathleen. Caitlin is unlikely to ever collect a significant
amount of the judgment.
Caitlin Atwater recently graduated from
Peterson's younger son, Todd Peterson,
lives in Dubai.
Peterson's older son, Clayton Peterson, was
married in 2004.
Martha Ratliff lives in San Francisco.
Margaret Ratliff is studying documentary
filmmaking at Columbia College in Chicago.
Following the trial, one of Peterson's
lawyers, Thomas Maher, resigned from the firm that bore his
name (Rudolf, Maher, Widenhouse & Fialko). He is now
Peterson's court-appointed attorney.
Lead defense counsel David Rudolf mentions
the Peterson case on his website
This case was featured in the episode "A Novel Idea" of