Crime & Courts

Mike Peterson seeks dismissal of murder charge in wife’s killing

Michael Peterson sits in a Durham courtroom between sons Clayton (left) and Todd in 2002.
Michael Peterson sits in a Durham courtroom between sons Clayton (left) and Todd in 2002. CHUCK LIDDY

Mike Peterson, who won freedom from a murder conviction after raising doubts about the work and testimony of a state blood analyst, now contends he should not have to go through a second trial because the Durham County Clerk of Superior Court’s office mishandled evidence in his case.

In a court document filed Tuesday in Durham County Superior Court, Raleigh attorneys Mike Klinkosum and Mary Jude Darrow argued that the first-degree murder charge that Peterson, 72, faces in the 2001 death of his wife, Kathleen, should be dismissed.

Durham District Attorney Roger Echols declined to comment Wednesday, saying he would make his responses in court or court filings. A hearing is set for May 23.

To support their argument, the defense attorneys described the chaos in which they found evidence – stored in boxes in police offices and the Durham County clerk’s office. Garbage was on a sweatshirt. Notes from another case were mixed in the boxes, and envelopes with “biohazard” labels on them had broken seals that left the evidence open to possible contamination.

The attorneys also outlined an argument the defense team might make if the case were to go to trial again – the possibility of intruders.

The attorneys argue that Durham police focused on Peterson, a novelist and longtime critic of city police and officials, shortly after arriving at the home where Kathleen Peterson was found lifeless at the base of a staircase. There was blood spattered on the staircase wall and elsewhere.

“Within minutes and hours of arriving at the Peterson home,” the attorneys said, “the Durham Police Department began treating Mr. Peterson like a suspect. They directed Mr. Peterson not to speak to his son, who was present in the home. They separated an obviously grieving husband from one of his closest family members, his son, and directed (Peterson) not to speak with him.”

In a court document filed Tuesday, Mike Peterson’s new defense team outlined a different strategy – arguing that an intruder could have been inside the home.

In the first trial, prosecutors argued that Peterson’s wife, a Nortel employee, had suffered a bludgeoning by her husband. Though the prosecutors never offered a clear motive for the killing, nor did they ever produce a murder weapon, the jury heard about a female friend of Mike Peterson’s who also was found dead at the foot of the stairs in an apartment in Germany 18 years before Kathleen Peterson’s death. Mike Peterson reportedly had walked the woman home after dinner the night of her death. His attorney said Peterson was at home asleep when the woman suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage.

The cause of death in the German case initially was attributed to a stroke, but a 2003 autopsy after the body was exhumed ruled the death a homicide. Peterson was never charged with a crime in that death, but the incident was part of the prosecutor’s case in the 2003 trial in Durham that brought the first-degree murder conviction.

At that trial, one of the longest in Durham County’s history, Peterson’s defense team argued that an inebriated Kathleen Peterson fell backward at least twice on the staircase and coughed up blood. The attorneys also argued that Durham police contaminated the crime scene.

In the court document filed Tuesday, Peterson’s new defense team outlined a different strategy – arguing that an intruder could have been inside the home.

Peterson communicated with Teresa Chambers, the Durham police chief, six months before his wife’s death, about an earlier report he had made. Peterson had reported to police that a burglary occurred at his home in June 2001 and his cellphone was stolen. The next day, he clarified the report, saying it was his son Todd’s phone that had been stolen, and his son thought he knew who had stolen it.

Mr. Peterson’s right to inspect and test the evidence in this case has been violated to the extent that he cannot obtain valid and reliable forensic testing to determine whether someone else caused the death of Mrs. Peterson

Mike Peterson’s attorneys in motion to dismiss charges against him

Peterson also mentioned five automobile break-ins on his property in an email later that year to someone inquiring about problems with Durham police.

To bolster their intruder theory, the defense also included passages from newspaper columns and a failed campaign for Durham mayor in which Peterson was critical of city officials and talked about going after drug dealers.

“When considering the tone and rhetoric of many of Mr. Peterson’s columns, as well as his targets as a mayoral candidate, particularly individuals involved in the drug trade in Durham, it is not outside the realm of possibility that someone who felt severely threatened by Mr. Peterson and his statements came to the residence on December 9, 2001, to confront or harm him but, instead, confronted and killed Mrs. Peterson,” the request for dismissal states.

If the defense were to go that route, the document states, Peterson’s lawyers would want to test or retest evidence. They questioned why Kathleen Peterson’s clothes were diverted from State Bureau of Investigation labs for DNA testing to the blood splatter area where Agent Duane Deaver worked.

Deaver, forced out of his job several years ago after an independent review of the state crime lab revealed problems with some of his cases, was singled out in the 2011 ruling that overturned the 2003 murder conviction. The Durham judge included in his ruling that Deaver conducted unscientific experiments and misled the jury about his experience and credentials.

Peterson’s new defense team argues that other evidence was “diverted” from DNA testing, including hair samples found on the stairway. “Mr. Peterson’s right to inspect and test the evidence in this case has been violated to the extent that he cannot obtain valid and reliable forensic testing to determine whether someone else caused the death of Mrs. Peterson,” the request to dismiss states. As a result, the defense team contends, Peterson’s “rights have been flagrantly violated, causing irreparable prejudice to the preparation of his case such that there is no remedy but to dismiss this prosecution.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1

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