On April 28, exactly one week before the murder trial of Michael Peterson was set to begin, the smell of fresh paint filled the main stairwell in Durham’s downtown courthouse. If you chose to walk the five flights to Superior Courtroom Number One, like most regulars familiar with the creeping elevators do, you’d get a good long look at every newly coated railing and doorjamb as your leg muscles groaned upward. Emerging on the fifth floor, you’d see spotless white walls to complement the shiny dark brown trim.
If, however, you stopped a flight short, at four, or went a flight more, to six, you’d see walls the same dingy dirt-gray they’ve been for a long time, the trim paint chipped in some places, rubbed clean off in others.
It’s a mirage of sorts, an architectural sleight of hand: The painters went only where the journalists would. It’s a show, for the reporters and camera crews and columnists and anchors and photographers who will spend the next eight or 12 weeks in Courtroom One, where a jury will eventually decide whether Peterson is guilty of killing his wife, Kathleen, some 17 months ago on a back staircase in their Forest Hills mansion.
The show isn’t, actually, for the journalists themselves. It’s for the viewers and the readers out there who are tuning in as the most publicized murder case in Durham’s recent history moves out of speculation and into the domain of judge and jury.
In a way, the journalists in the courthouse are a lot like its painters. Their choices of what to hide and what to reveal, and when and where and how, color the outside world’s view of Mike Peterson, and may influence his future.
“When you have a story like this, that you give such intense attention to, you have to stop and ask yourself, ‘Why are we doing this? Why are we doing that?’” says James Eli Shiffer, the Durham editor for The News & Observer. “There’s a definite awareness of the role the media is playing here.”
As the contentious selection of the 12 people who will decide the case grinds on into May, the prosecution and defense both seek opportunities to use newsprint and airwaves to accentuate the arguments they’re making on the fifth floor of the courthouse. And the large bevy of local and national journalists is a willing conduit, because there’s something in it for them–be it newspaper sales, ratings boosts, the personal satisfaction and professional advancement that comes with a big scoop, or even, perhaps, the pursuit of what really happened to Kathleen Peterson in the wee hours of Dec. 9, 2001.
The day of the painting project marked the start of a daily routine for District Attorney Jim Hardin and Peterson defense attorneys David Rudolf and Thomas Maher. With pre-trial motions on evidence admissibility and other technical matters, the two teams began what could be a three-month stint squaring off in front of Superior Judge Orlando Hudson for long hours every day, laboring to win a series of legal, logical and emotional arguments that will eventually result in a verdict. In the first two weeks, media coverage emerged further and further into the limelight of the trial as the two sides blamed each other for encouraging the public attention. Rudolf argued motion after motion to close pre-trial hearings and seal evidence and jury questionnaires, complaining that the intense exposure was bad for his client’s presumed innocence. His argument rang false to Hardin, who’s watched his opponent court the press for over a year, while declining comment over and over himself, though some critics say he works effectively behind the scenes.
“If anybody can be blamed for any aspect of this media coverage, Mr. Rudolf has to take some part in that, because he’s been right there in the middle of all of it,” Hardin said, in his methodical but firm inflection, referencing Rudolf’s many sound bites on the news the night before and quotes in the papers that morning.
Rudolf dodged the bait.
“If Mr. Hardin would like to complain to the Bar about it, that’s fine with me,” Rudolf said.
Sparring about manipulating the media in the opening chapters of the trial is just one way the news has already played a starring role in this case. Local newspapers forced pre-trial hearings and a controversial autopsy into public view in the week before jury selection. The lengthy jury questionnaire, in part, highlights the work of specific publications and journalists by name. And in a surreal afternoon of the watchers becoming the watched, Rudolf put reporters on the witness stand to testify, over the objections of the press attorneys, while their own photographers snapped frame after frame.
Leading the fight for the First Amendment on April 28, the Durham Herald-Sun protested the defense’s request to close a pre-trial debate on whether certain evidence would be allowed into court.
Rudolf, a masterful criminal defense attorney who gained national recognition defending Carolina Panthers football player Rae Carruth on murder charges two years ago, was at his indignant best fighting with the papers. In a preview of the sort of rhetoric that is expected when testimony actually begins, Rudolf shook sheaves of paper and urged the judge to kick the media out of the courtroom to give him a half-hour in private to present his arguments about why an autopsy report and details of Peterson’s sex life should not be allowed as evidence in the murder trial.
“I believe the First Amendment can probably stand a 30-minute breather,” Rudolf said sarcastically.
“That’s his job, and it’s our job to do something about it,” Herald-Sun Managing Editor Bill Stagg said later. “He’s quick on his feet, and the burden is on the media to be equally adroit at advocating our side.”
On a related issue, the Raleigh-based News & Observer sought to reverse the judge’s decision to seal the new autopsy of Peterson family friend Elizabeth Ratliff, who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in Germany in 1985 and exhumed and re-autopsied as part of Hardin’s investigation.
The two papers teamed up, succeeding in getting the autopsy released and the evidence hearing opened. Their motions also affected Rudolf’s defense. Faced with having to reveal details of his client’s sexual habits in front of the journalists to support his request to have that subject excluded from the trial, Rudolf dropped his motion.
The next week, though, the papers were unsuccessful in convincing the judge to release copies of the 106-question survey that potential jurors completed, during the bizarre hearing that landed News & Observer reporter Demorris Lee and Herald-Sun reporter Virginia Bridges on the stand.
“This is the most extreme circus atmosphere I’ve ever seen here. Ever,” says Herald-Sun reporter John Stevenson, a 20-year veteran of the Durham courthouse beat. In addition to the attention from the local papers and television stations that have spent months planning packages and lining up logistics, the Peterson trial has drawn headlines from far afield of the Bull City. People magazine, Inside Edition, 20/20, 48 Hours, Prime Time Live and other national media have featured or plan to cover the case, and Court TV, the around-the-clock legal channel, will broadcast the trial “gavel-to-gavel” once the jury is seated. An Academy Award-winning French documentary crew, at work for several months already and with the permission of the judge and key participants, films every piece of testimony and conversation up-close and personal, lowering their boom mike over the defendant even as he chats with supporters during a break.
The complex plot and colorful characters in the drama of Kathleen Peterson’s death is rich material for journalists. A wealthy, well-known and social couple, surrounded by a blended family of college-age children, two of them the adopted daughters of Elizabeth Ratliff, whose death 18 years ago the prosecution now says may be relevant. A victim who was a top-notch executive at Nortel Networks, a hostess of lavish parties and a generous patron of the local arts. The defendant husband, a war veteran who turned his Marine tenure into successful novels and his political gadflyism into columns criticizing local government leaders–particularly the city police department that now holds the evidence his freedom depends on–and then went on to campaign unsuccessfully to become an elected leader himself, getting nailed in the paper for lying about his Vietnam heroism in the process.
“This story has so many twists and turns, you never know what’s going to happen next, so you cover every little morsel you can get,” says Julia Lewis, the lead Peterson reporter for WRAL, the Raleigh CBS affiliate. And while the media outlets have cooperated on logistics such as pooling camera feed, the individual journalists cooped up working the story keep wary eyes on each other’s work, even as they share the contents of their lunchboxes and trade the latest gossip.
“Everyone’s friends, but when it comes down to what gets on TV, you’re competitors,” says Lewis. “You never lose sight of that.”
Defending his home turf in a toe-to-toe battle with Raleigh’s much bigger daily, the Herald-Sun’s managing editor puts it another way.
“It’s been a real interesting journalistic cat fight,” Stagg says.
That competition, in turn, provides a rich opportunity for the prosecution and defense–and other players, like the families of the victim and accused–to advance their own agendas as they shop around tidbits that will paint the public’s perception in their favor.
Rudolf, like all high-profile defense attorneys, massages his client’s public image through a variety of tactics. His friendly rapport with individual reporters is evident in the teasing conversations he engages in during breaks in the court action. He hands out his cellphone number freely and regularly faxes his motions and other documents to each newsroom. And as Peterson awaited trial out on bond for over a year, Rudolf allowed his client to do many on-camera and on-the-record interviews, a level of exposure that’s drawn chuckles of admiration from even jaded courthouse regulars.
“He’s really good, and obviously he knows how to work the press,” says Lewis, who scored a one-on-one interview with Peterson right after he got out of jail. “He’s good at the theatrics, he’s a great sound bite. If you think about it, there’s really been no ‘bad’ press about Michael Peterson in the last year and a half.”
Being accessible and helping reporters do their jobs is a two-way street for defense attorneys. In return, they get a close-up view of what reporters are working on, a position that often provides a chance–if not always a success–at spinning or squelching stories before they surface.
Such was the case with a May 4 News & Observer story, a lengthy front-page Sunday feature published the day before jury selection began.
General assignment reporter Craig Jarvis spent a month tracking down first-hand accounts of Peterson’s tenure in a tiny Marine outpost in 1969. By coloring in some of the details of Peterson’s Vietnam experience, Jarvis and his editors were following up on their much-envied 1999 Peterson scoop, when the N&O broke the story that the then-candidate for Durham mayor had lied about receiving a Purple Heart and being injured in battle. Interviewing vets, digging through old records and listening to audiotapes of Peterson’s own description of events, Jarvis uncovered conflicting accounts of a friendly fire mishap, including colleagues’ allegations that Peterson gave the order that resulted in two American deaths, and that the former lieutenant “got a little squirrelly” under the pressure of a firefight and had to be restrained.
Rudolf met with top brass at the N&O’s Raleigh headquarters on Friday, May 2, threatening a lawsuit and urging editors to soften the story or delay it because of the potential negative impact on his client, says Jarvis.
“They weren’t happy about it, and they put a lot of pressure on us,” says Jarvis. “Rudolf kept asking, ‘Are you really sure you’ve got your facts straight? Because if you don’t, this could be an actionable story.’ But my job is to look for the truth. His job is to represent his client.”
On the other side, the county’s lead prosecutor has remained tight-lipped, declining many opportunities to be interviewed and openly criticizing Rudolf’s interpreting the state’s case in front of the cameras. Hardin has closely guarded his strategy and evidence, releasing very little data–at least directly. Some critics, though, have accused him of deliberate leaks and behind-the-scenes manipulation of the media, and of using the many resources at the state’s disposal to further his case in the public’s eye.
One pro-prosecution spin that several reporters cite is the phone call they got the day before Elizabeth Ratliff’s body arrived from Texas for the re-autopsy in Chapel Hill. The Durham Police Department, which rarely goes out of its way to alert the press about anything–and is much more often accused of obstructing information–had a spokeswoman call each local outlet to give them a heads-up about the casket coming off the plane, putting a key component of the state’s case front and center in the news cycle.
An earlier scoop also drew criticism that Hardin may be less obvious but no less active than his opponent in manipulating the public’s perception via the media.
Like every other television reporter in the Triangle, WTVD’s Sonya Pfeiffer had been trying to get Kathleen Peterson’s sister to agree to an on-camera interview for several months last summer. Candace Zamperini was a hot lead, because she’d been critical of her brother-in-law in written statements, offering an alternative voice to counter all the pro-Mike family members crowding the evening news proclaiming his innocence. But written statements don’t air dramatically, so the broadcast reporters put the press on Zamperini, visiting her in northern Virginia, taking her to lunch, begging unsuccessfully for an exclusive. In the end, she chose Pfeiffer and her ABC affiliate.
“She decided she was ready to talk, and she decided she wanted to talk to us,” Pfeiffer says in the sparkling white hallway outside Courtroom One, on a break from jury selection. “But she also decided she wanted to do it a month before Jim Hardin was up for re-election.”
The resulting interview–in which Zamperini hinted at previously undisclosed details, like the district attorney having both a motive and a murder weapon in hand–drew some criticism for its timing and political spin, particularly from the defense team. On camera, Zamperini fawned over Hardin, saying she really hoped he’d still be the prosecutor on duty when the Peterson case came to trial this year. The incumbent prosecutor, who faced an opponent in front of voters just a few weeks away, vehemently denied involvement in Pfeiffer’s story, but the positive statements sure didn’t hurt his re-election effort.
“Did she use the press? Absolutely. Would I have been a fool to turn it down? Absolutely,” says Pfeiffer. “It’s mutual manipulation all the time.”