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Who Is Michael Peterson's Defense Attorney David Rudolf And Where Is He Now?

David Rudolf, who is portrayed by actor Michael Stuhlbarg in the HBO Max series "The Staircase," fought tenaciously for novelist Michael Peterson after he was charged with murder for the 2001 death of his wife Kathleen Peterson.

By Gina Tron
The Michael Peterson Case, Explained

David Rudolf has worked as a defense attorney for decades but it was his defense of novelist Michael Peterson brought him to national recognition.

Rudolf represented Peterson soon after the novelist was charged with murder for the death of his wife, Kathleen Peterson, whose bloody and battered body was found at the bottom of a staircase in their North Carolina home in 2001. Peterson had always insisted that he simply found Kathleen's body and that she must have fallen down the stairs.

As the docuseries “The Staircase" documented, Rudolf fought for Peterson shortly after his initial arrest as leader of his defense team. The team tried to convince the jury that if Peterson was by his house's pool when his wife died as he claimed, it would have been impossible for him to have heard any of her cries for help.

The jury was not swayed, and instead seemed persuaded by bloodstain evidence that state experts testified was indicative of a homicide. They convicted Peterson in 2003.

(L-R) Michael Peterson next to his attorney David Rudolf

A lengthy appeal process of Peterson's conviction led to a 2011 order for a retrial.

Rudolf filed the motions that resulted in the retrial, helping establish that a key prosecution witness, former investigator Duane Deaver, provided unreliable testimony during the first trial. Deaver had testified that bloodstain analysis from the scene indicated that Kathleen Peterson's injuries were sustained during a fatal beating — not from an accidental fall. Deaver was fired from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation in 2011 after allegedly providing false testimony at a number of trials. 

Rudolf departed Peterson's defense team in 2014; he states on his website that the decision came not too long after the birth of his daughter and after feeling "emotionally spent." 

Peterson was released in 2017 after he entered an Alford plea — a guilty plea whereby a defendant does not admit to the criminal act — to manslaughter charges in Kathleen's death to avoid a second trial.

Rudolf began working as a public defender in the South Bronx back in 1974, representing “poor people facing the power of the government,” he states on his website. From there, he worked at the Federal Defender Office in Brooklyn, trying a number of federal criminal cases, “including a case arising out of the hijacking of an airliner by a group of Croatians seeking independence from Yugoslavia.”

He helped start the Criminal Law Clinic at the University of North Carolina School of Law in 1978. He founded his own law firm in 1982, which is still in operation. He and his wife also own an art gallery in Charlotte, the Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art. 

Rudolf recently made an appearance as a panelist at a CrimeCon 2022 panel, entitled  “Wrongful Convictions: The Role of Cognitive Bias." Using Deaver as an example, he delved into how junk science can muck up justice. He also discussed the infamous owl theory (the theory that an owl killed Kathleen) at CrimeCon in 2019.

In the HBO Max series "The Staircase," Rudolf is portrayed by actor Michael Stuhlbarg.

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