This story was made for television.
The affluent couple: the wife, a glass-ceiling-shattering executive, philanthropist, and socialite; the husband, a novelist, newspaper columnist, and one-time mayoral aspirant. The charmed life: a nine-thousand-square-foot home, five children merged into one family after second marriages, lavish parties and fundraisers. The sudden death, at first thought to be an unfortunate accident but later deemed a homicide. The bizarre trial and its decade-long aftermath, which featured everything from charges of evidence tampering to email exchanges with a male escort to speculation about a killer owl.
It’s been fifteen years, two months, and two weeks since Herald-Sun columnist Michael Iver Peterson called 911 and told dispatchers that his wife of four years, Nortel Networks vice president and Durham arts advocate Kathleen Peterson, had fallen down a staircase in their Cedar Street home. It’s been fifteen years, two months, and one week since Peterson hired high-profile defense attorney David Rudolf, was indicted by a grand jury, and turned himself in to Durham police on a first-degree murder charge. The case rattled the Bull City to its core and became water-cooler fodder across the nation until a jury found Peterson guilty nearly two years later.
One of the longest trials in North Carolina history, the Peterson saga inspired a Lifetime movie, two documentaries, and at least seven television specials and six books. And long after Peterson was convicted in 2003 and sentenced to life in prison—even after he was granted a new trial in 2011, when his lawyers successfully argued that an embattled blood spatter expert gave misleading testimony—people are still intrigued by the underlying mystery of it all: whether Kathleen Peterson had drunkenly fallen down the stairs, as Peterson’s lawyers suggested, or whether she’d been beaten and pushed by a sexually frustrated husband with an eye on her life insurance policy, as prosecutors argued.
As early as March 18, 2002, Peterson claimed he didn’t kill his wife, saying the case against him was nothing more than the Durham Police Department seeking revenge for a column he wrote scrutinizing local cops. On Friday, the seventy-three-year-old is expected to plead guilty to manslaughter—while maintaining his innocence—and walk out of the Durham County Courthouse a free man. In a document filed Wednesday by Peterson’s legal team, Rudolf wrote that his client “did not attack Kathleen Peterson. He did not strike Kathleen Peterson. He is not responsible for her death in anyway.”
The autopsy told a much different story than the narrative Peterson gave police—that Kathleen was drunk and fell down the stairs. His wife had multiple bruises on her arms, wrists, hands, and back. There were multiple abrasions on her face. She had at least seven deep lacerations on her head.
Prosecutors also sought to establish a pattern of behavior by presenting the autopsy report of Elizabeth Ratliff—Peterson’s friend and the mother of his two adopted daughters, Martha and Margaret—who died in Germany in 1985. She, too, was found at the bottom of a staircase. And she, too, had lacerations on her scalp. German authorities listed the cause of death as a stroke, but after her remains were exhumed in April 2003 and re-examined at the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Chapel Hill, her death was likewise ruled a homicide. Peterson was allegedly the last person to see Ratliff alive.
The trial began in May 2003. Prosecutors called a male escort to the stand, a man who had never met Peterson but had communicated with him by email, and submitted gay pornography found on Peterson’s computer as evidence. Questions were raised about the couple’s finances and whether Michael may have wanted to collect Kathleen’s more-than-$1 million life insurance policy.
TV host Nancy Grace discussed the trial daily on her show, and every news outlet in the Triangle did the same. In the end, it took jurors four days to find Peterson guilty.
But the case was far from over. Six years after the verdict, it returned to the spotlight in a way only such a peculiar case could. In 2009, attorney Larry Pollard developed what has come to be known as “The Owl Defense.” (Yes. It has a name.) According to the autopsy, Kathleen had been clutching strands of her hair in both hands. The hair in one hand contained small feathers. It seemed to Pollard that the injuries to Kathleen’s head were more consistent with the talons of a barred owl than a fireplace poker, as the prosecution had suggested. Pollard, a former neighbor of the Petersons, suggested the bird had attacked Kathleen and become tangled in her hair, causing her to fall down the stairs. Nothing much came of the theory—legally, at least. It did produce plenty of eye rolling.
In 2011, after failed appeals that went all the way to the N.C. Supreme Court and the loss of a $35 million wrongful-death suit filed by Kathleen’s only biological daughter, Caitlin, Peterson’s attorneys finally found their opening. Duane Deaver, a State Bureau of Investigation blood analyst, was fired after an audit showed he was negligent in dozens of tests he performed for the state. Deaver had given expert testimony in Peterson’s trial and told jurors, among other things, that the blood spatter found on the inside of Peterson’s shorts could only have gotten there if he was standing over her body and striking her from above as she died.
Peterson filed a motion for a retrial based on Deaver’s termination, and Judge Orlando Hudson granted his request. Peterson was placed under house arrest and was scheduled to receive a new trial this May.
But sometime between Peterson’s appeals and now, several pieces of evidence were mishandled by court officials or law enforcement officers. And with Deaver’s testimony obviously off the table, the state decided the best way to get justice for Kathleen was to offer Peterson a deal—to get him to, at seventy-three, plead guilty to something. So, on Friday, Peterson will plead guilty to manslaughter and walk out of the courthouse a free man. He’ll do so using an Alford plea, a legal device that acts as both an admission that a conviction on first-degree murder would be likely and an assertion of innocence.
Really. You can’t make this up.
Additional reporting by Megan Howard