From the beginning, it made people positively giddy to think Mike Peterson might have killed his wife. I’m not talking about from the beginning of the trial itself, when it looked like the state had no case, and that defense attorney David Rudolf was going to eat District Attorney Jim Hardin’s lunch. I’m talking about from the very beginning, before CourtTV and the bristle of satellite trucks–back when this was still Durham’s own little story and you would talk to people on the streets and their eyes would shine with the scandal of it. I’m talking about the December that Kathleen Peterson died, in a big white house that had always been so alive, its very rooms ringing with crystal and fragrant with the scent of cut flowers.
(Points of disclosure and clarification: Mike Peterson is my neighbor. His house is too far from mine to hear the crystal or smell the roses, but still I feel I have the credentials to say that while our neighborhood is, as the newspapers say, “green and leafy,” all is not what it seems. The vast Forest Hills park, for instance, conceals a network of occasionally faulty sewer lines, and the creek has been, over the years, a watery graveyard for a showroom’s worth of large appliances. In other words, as the Victorians might have put it, there is a certain pollution in the woods.)
Back to the point. What I remember about the time of Kathleen Peterson’s death was how word on the street moved so quickly from shock to suspicion and from suspicion to accusation. All trace of the dead woman herself–the affectionate and generous mother, wife, aunt; the woman who on friends’ birthdays would polish their chandeliers–all this was gone. In its place was a collective philippic against the man who might have–no, must have–killed her. When a grand jury was convened, just before Christmas, even the holiday lights seemed to shine with a lurid satisfaction. It was as if, my friend Barb said, the whole town sensed a public hanging in the works, and already people were hustling for seats with their flagons and joints of meat.
There were dissenters of course–friends, neighbors–people for whom it was unbelievable that Mike Peterson had been charged with first-degree murder, that he was sitting in a jail cell on Christmas Day, that a lawyer was making statements on his behalf. True, Peterson was a bit of an eccentric and a tad arrogant and there was that business, during his mayoral campaign, of lying to the press about his military record. But after all, what do you expect from a man who sits around drinking fine wine and writing novels? Peterson was a respectable man, a good dad, a philanthropist given to acts of kindness and generosity. And, most important of all, he loved his wife, adored her. People called them soul mates, said they were made for each other. Why the very idea that he might have…
And here, despite themselves, even the ardent supporters would falter, their eyes shiny, gazing at distant possibilities.
Then came the trial. Durham’s summer of bloated pleasures. In the extended pause before opening arguments we got to see Mike Peterson sitting at the defendant’s table, eyebrows listed in a kind of permanent, static bewilderment. We got to see the biological children, the adopted children, the stepchildren. Their faces, pale ghosts in the gray type of the daily papers, were sad, or sullen or insolent or bored–each recalling, in some feature or gesture, one or another of their parents.
Then, while the rains fell, swelling streams and subverting the hair-dos of various TV anchors, the prosecution put on 41 days of testimony from police detectives, spatter experts, in-laws and medical examiners. Hardin drawled, pale and pouchy; Rudolf barked, swarthy as a sultan. The witnesses were variously petulant, serene, weepy, confident and incoherent, and together they cut and pasted a better circumstantial case than anyone, frankly, had anticipated.
And, in so doing, they opened the Peterson mansion like a child’s doll house, showing us the dark corners, the places where dust and muck settle and where, on a December morning a year and a half earlier, a warm body lay bleeding. As the summer wore on, we learned that the couple had worried about their debts, including bills run up by Mike’s grown son Todd. We learned that Mike liked boys, but only on the side; that 16 years earlier the mother of his adopted daughters was found dead at the foot of her staircase, and that their father had died under mysterious circumstances. And we watched Jim Hardin, hair neatly sprayed, forehead pinched into a frown, brandish a blowpoke like a drum majorette, raising these implications and leaving them unanswered.
The rains fell, the streams swelled and our titillation, like rococo patterns of mold, blossomed and spread.
Then, in early September, the state rested. The heat broke, trumpet vine withered on utility poles and David Rudolf stood up from the defense table. Reticent, unwilling, we now watch as Rudolf brandishes his own blowpoke and jiggles the table beneath our house of cards.
Remember years ago, when they were trying Jeffrey MacDonald for the murder of his wife and two small children? I keep thinking about what the prosecutor told the jury in that case: He didn’t have to prove MacDonald was the kind of man who could kill his family. He only had to prove that MacDonald did kill his family.
That, of course, is the crucial difference, though it’s instructive to notice when we grasp it and when we don’t. Just last week at a local diner, I overheard a heated defense of convicted murderer Henry Lee Hunt, whom the state executed this month despite noteworthy claims of innocence. Turning the pages of his newspaper to an account of the Peterson trial, this same customer went on to horsewhip Mike Peterson–a man, he said, who was “easily a bastard enough” to kill his wife. I wonder how many of Peterson’s defamers are the same people who are horrified when some poor death-row inmate’s claims of innocence are met with that unspoken and exasperating response: Well, anyway, he’s the sort of person who would shoot somebody to death.
Peterson, of course, has little in common with the average convicted killer. (Rudolf means to keep it that way.) He’s white, educated and capable of paying a first-rate trial attorney to mount his defense. His house is enormous; his neighborhood green and leafy, and he himself has been known to be arrogant and cocky, a liar. He’s the sort of person, in other words, we can all enjoy despising. Everybody loves a good comeuppance.
But I don’t think it’s just petty malice that spurs our animosity toward Peterson. There’s also a healthy pinch of schadenfreude thrown in. Schadenfreude is the pleasure we feel at another person’s misfortune, and I’m guessing it’s hard-wired in the Homo sapiens sapiens’ brain. Really good people don’t experience schadenfreude so much; for the rest of us, the beast in the basement howls and we throw it what scraps of flesh we can.
When Kathleen Peterson died, the beast howled. And we responded. Not because we are indifferent to the life of Kathleen Peterson, nor even because of any particular loathing of her husband. We respond because the Petersons have confirmed us in our suspicion that nothing is as it seems, that we are shadows to one another, unknown and unknowing. The glee, the giddiness, the titillation–that’s just the mercenary little dance of thanksgiving we offer up, knowing that in the dust and muck of our own dark corners there is, at least, no warm body.