Mike Peterson’s attorney questions preservation of evidence in murder case

When novelist Mike Peterson went to trial in 2003, accused of murdering his wife, his defense team spent much of the protracted trial describing what they argued was a shoddy police investigation.

Now, as the 71-year-old man awaits a second trial on the same charge – that he murdered Kathleen Peterson on Dec. 9, 2001 – a new defense team is questioning whether protection of the evidence for the 15-year-old case also has been shoddy.

This week, Mike Klinkosum, a Raleigh attorney appointed to take over defense in the long-running case, filed documents, with attached pictures, in Durham County Superior Court that outline his concerns.

Evidence bags were torn open, not carefully cut as most crime scene investigators do at trial.

Shoes, a T-shirt, fleece and other articles of clothing were stored in unsealed boxes in three different places – a Durham Police Department property and evidence room on Holloway Street, the office of the Durham County Clerk of Superior Court at the courthouse, and the Police Department’s forensic unit site on Rigsbee Street.

Not only did the defense team find unexplained garbage on a blue shirt at the bottom of a box, there also were notes, documents and records from an unrelated case.

Peterson has been out of prison since December 2011, when a judge vacated his murder conviction and granted the former newspaper columnist a new trial.

The verdict was overturned by Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson after defense lawyers brought forward evidence about one of the prosecution’s expert witnesses at the 2003 trial.

That witness, Duane Deaver, a former State Bureau of Investigation blood analyst, was forced out of his job several years ago after an independent review of the state crime lab revealed problems with some of his cases.

Hudson ruled that Deaver conducted unscientific experiments and misled the jury about his experience and credentials.

Though Peterson initially was subject to electronic monitoring while awaiting his second trial, he since has been freed from that restriction.

Durham residents report seeing Peterson often at the gym. Peterson maintains that he did not murder Kathleen Peterson, who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase.

Thirteen years ago, when prosecutors went to trial, they did so without a murder weapon and no clear motive for her death.

The trial, one of the longest in Durham County history, drew big media crowds and national TV coverage.

The case has been featured in the documentary “The Staircase” and has been the subject of several episodes of “Dateline NBC.”

District Attorney Roger Echols has said he might weigh a plea deal to avoid another protracted trial, but so far the details of any such negotiations have not been disclosed.

In two separate motions Monday, Klinkosum sought information about who has had access to the Peterson evidence. Since the 2003 trial, Durham County has moved into a new courthouse several blocks away.

It was unclear Tuesday whether the Peterson evidence had been stored in the old courthouse and moved, or whether the boxes at the Durham County clerk’s office arrived from elsewhere.

Bags with biohazard labels, presumably to reflect that they contained evidence with blood, saliva or sweat, were unsealed and open to potential contamination from exposure to elements, Klinkosum contended.

“One of the most basic tenets of crime scene investigation and evidence collection is that every item of physical evidence must be collected, packaged and held separately to prevent any contamination and/or cross-contamination between items of evidence,” the motion filed on Monday states.

Klinkosum was assigned to the case in October 2014 after Peterson sought a publicly appointed attorney. He is considered indigent by the courts.

Klinkosum had to become familiar with trial details contained in a voluminous transcript and review evidence from the case.

Efforts to reach Echols this week have been unsuccessful. In previous interviews, he has declined to comment on the specifics of the case outside the courtroom.

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1