Did Michael Peterson kill his wife?
Nearly two decades after Kathleen Peterson was found at the bottom of a dimly-lit stairwell, 15 years after he was convicted of her death, and six years after he was granted a new trial, many are still looking for answers.
Peterson, now 73, is a novelist, former candidate for mayor of Durham, North Carolina, and, most notably, the husband of Kathleen Peterson, for whose violent death at age 48 he spent nearly a decade behind bars.
The story of her death, and his efforts to fight the charges against him, are the subject of "The Staircase," a French docu-series that first aired in the United States in 2005, and has been updated and released on Netflix.
Peterson grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, and graduated from Duke University, before enlisting in the Marines and serving in the Vietnam War. Peterson lived for a time in West Germany with his first wife, Patricia Sue Peterson, before the couple divorced in 1987 and Peterson headed back to Durham.
He moved in with Kathleen Peterson, an executive with the Nortel Networks Company, in 1989, and the pair married in 1997. According to his defenders, including his daughters, the Petersons had a remarkably close and loving relationship, but at trial prosecutors said he was secretly visiting male sex workers, and also pointed to a life-insurance policy and his wife's out-of-control spending as motives to kill, according to a report on CNN at the time of the trial.
After a 14-week trial in 2003, Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife Kathleen Peterson. But Peterson's tenacious pursuit of his proclaimed innocence prevented from the book being closed on the case.
The Michael Peterson saga began the night of Dec. 6, 2001, when Peterson said he was returning from a late-night poolside hang outside their Durham, North Carolina home, and found Kathleen lying at the foot of a staircase, unconscious with wounds to her head. Peterson called 911 to report that his wife had fallen down “15, 20” stairs. She was found with severe lacerations to the back of her head, and suffering from major blood loss.
In a country where half of all women murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control in 2017, it’s easy to see why suspicion fell first on Peterson. And there was enough evidence there — including a $1.4 million insurance payout, an alleged bi-sexual affair between Michael and a male escort, a bloody shoe print on Kathleen’s sweatpants that matched Michael’s sneakers — for suspicion to remain.
But the trial was also marred by a flawed case brought by prosecutors. They were accused of bringing up evidence that implicated Peterson without directly tying it to Kathleen’s death, and they relied on a bloodstain pattern analyst who concluded that Peterson had killed his wife but who was later fired by the state for embellishing his credentials and overstating the accuracy of his tests, including his analysis that the prosecution used to convince a jury of Peterson's guilt, according to WRAL Channel 5 Raleigh. (In addition to the analyst's embellishments, the entire field of bloodstain pattern analysis has begun to come under scrutiny in recent years, with experts questioning its certainty in "reading" crime scenes, according to the Missouri Springfield News-Leader.)
The case has spawned a cottage industry of alternative theories — which have been egged on by the by-now usual presence of websleuths donating their talents to solving the crime — including but not limited to “Kathleen fell down the stairs” and “an owl knocked Kathleen down the stairs," one of the rare times Audubon Magazine has reportage for a murder case.
In the first trial, the jurors eventually sided with the prosecution, and a judge sentenced him to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, but in 2011 he was granted a new trial, according to WRAL Channel 5 Raleigh.
Despite his conviction, Peterson has always maintained his innocence. A judge granted him a new trial in 2011, which allowed him to leave prison, according to the Charlotte Observer. And he officially became a free man in February 2017, after taking what’s referred to as an Alford Plea to reduced charges of manslaughter, meaning he acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him but did not take responsibility for murdering his wife. A judge sentenced him to time served, and he was released leaving court a felon but continuing to proclaim his innocence.
But no one was very happy with the verdict. For Peterson, it meant being unable to find true vindication in court, he told reporters after the hearing.
"I didn’t hurt Kathleen. I didn’t kill her. It just didn’t happen," he told WRAL.
And for Kathleen's sister, Lori Campbell, Peterson's ability to walk out of the courthouse a free man was an insult to her late sibling.
"It's wrong that, after a jury sentenced him to life in prison for the murder of his wife, he gets to be a free man while Kathleen lies in her grave," Campbell said, according to WRAL. "Closure is for a door, not for my murdered sister."
[Photo: Getty Images]
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