American novelist convicted of manslaughter
Michael Iver Peterson (born October 23, 1943) is an American novelist who was convicted in 2003 of murdering his second wife, Kathleen Peterson, on December 9, 2001. After eight years, Peterson was granted a new trial after the judge ruled a critical prosecution witness gave misleading testimony. In 2017, Peterson submitted an Alford plea to the reduced charge of manslaughter. He was sentenced to time already served and freed.
Peterson’s case is the subject of the documentary miniseries The Staircase, which started filming soon after his arrest in 2001 and followed events until his eventual Alford plea in 2017. In 2019, he released his own account of his life since his wife’s death in an independently published memoir, Behind the Staircase.
- 1 Personal and professional life
- 2 Murder trial
- 2.1 Kathleen’s death
- 2.2 Suspicion surrounding Elizabeth Ratliff’s death
- 2.3 Verdict
- 2.4 Appeal
- 2.5 Owl theory
- 2.6 Retrial hearing
- 2.7 Alford plea
- 3 Media
- 3.1 Films about the case
- 3.2 Television productions about the case
- 3.3 Radio productions about the case
- 4 Literary output
- 4.1 Novels written by Peterson
- 5 References
- 6 External links
Personal and professional life
Michael Iver Peterson was born near Nashville, Tennessee, the son of Eugen Iver Peterson and Eleanor Peterson (née Bartolino). He graduated from Duke University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. While there, Peterson was president of Sigma Nu fraternity and was editor of The Chronicle, the daily student newspaper, from 1964–1965. He attended classes at the law school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
After graduating, Peterson took a civilian job with the U.S. Department of Defense, where he was assigned to research arguments supporting increased military involvement in Vietnam. That year he also married Patricia Sue, who taught at an elementary school on the Rhein-Main Air Base in Gräfenhausen, West Germany. They had two children, Clayton and Todd. In 1968, Peterson enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served in the Vietnam War. In 1971, he received an honorable discharge with the rank of captain after a car accident left him with a permanent disability.
Years later, during a mayoral campaign, Peterson claimed he had won a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Valor, and two Purple Hearts. He had all the medals, but said he did not have the documentation for them. Peterson claimed he had received one Purple Heart after being hit by shrapnel when another soldier stepped on a land mine, and the other when he was shot. He later admitted his war injury was not the result of the shrapnel wound in Vietnam, but was the result of a car accident in Japan, where he was stationed after the war as a military policeman. The Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer said records did not contain any mention of the two Purple Hearts that Peterson said he had received. However, military files verified that he received a Silver Star and the Bronze Star Medal with Valor.
Peterson and his first wife Patricia lived in Germany for some time. There they befriended Elizabeth and George Ratliff and their two children, Margaret and Martha. After George’s death, the Peterson and Ratliff families became very close. When Elizabeth Ratliff died in 1985, Michael became the guardian of her two children. After Michael and Patricia divorced in 1987, Clayton and Todd lived with Patricia, and Margaret and Martha stayed with Michael, who then moved to Durham, North Carolina. Clayton and Todd later also joined their father.
Peterson wrote three novels based “around his experiences during the Vietnamese conflict”—The Immortal Dragon, A Time of War, and A Bitter Peace. He co-wrote the biographical Charlie Two Shoes and the Marines of Love Company with journalist David Perlmutt, and co-wrote Operation Broken Reed with Lt. Col. Arthur L. Boyd. Peterson also worked as a newspaper columnist for the Durham Herald-Sun, where his columns became known for their criticism of police and of Durham County District Attorney James Hardin Jr. Hardin was the prosecutor of Peterson for the murder of his second wife, Kathleen.
In 1989, Michael moved in with Kathleen Atwater, a successful Nortel business executive. They married in 1997, and Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin joined the extended family that now consisted of Clayton, Todd, Martha, and Margaret.
On December 9, 2001, Peterson called an emergency line to report that he had just found Kathleen unconscious in their Forest Hills mansion and suspected she had fallen down “fifteen, twenty, I don’t know” stairs. He later claimed that he had been outside by the pool and had come in at 2:40 am to find Kathleen at the foot of the stairs. Peterson said she must have fallen down the stairs after consuming alcohol and Valium.
Toxicology results showed that Kathleen’s blood alcohol content was 0.07 percent (70 mg/100mL). The autopsy report concluded that the 48-year-old woman sustained a matrix of severe injuries, including a fracture of the thyroid neck cartilage and seven lacerations to the top and back of her head, consistent with blows from a blunt object, and had died from blood loss ninety minutes to two hours after sustaining the injuries. Kathleen’s daughter, Caitlin, and Kathleen’s sister, Candace Zamperini, both initially proclaimed Michael’s innocence and publicly supported him alongside his children, but Zamperini reconsidered after learning of Peterson’s bisexuality, as did Caitlin after reading her mother’s autopsy report. Both subsequently broke off from the rest of the family.
Although forensic expert Henry Lee, hired by Peterson’s defense, testified that the blood-spatter evidence was consistent with an accidental fall down the stairs, police investigators concluded that the injuries were inconsistent with such an accident. As Peterson was the only person at the residence at the time of Kathleen’s death, he was the prime suspect and was soon charged with her murder. He pleaded not guilty.
The medical examiner, Deborah Radisch, concluded that Kathleen had died from lacerations of the scalp caused by a homicidal assault. According to Radisch, the total of seven lacerations to the top and back of Kathleen’s head were the result of repeated blows with a light, yet rigid, weapon. The defense disputed this theory. According to their analysis, Kathleen’s skull had not been fractured by the blows, nor was she brain damaged, which was inconsistent with injuries sustained in a beating death.
The trial drew increasing media attention as details of Peterson’s private life emerged. Hardin and his prosecution team (among them Mike Nifong) attacked Peterson’s credibility, focusing on his alleged misreporting of his military service and what they described as a “gay life” he led and kept secret. The prosecution contended that the Petersons’ marriage was far from happy, suggesting that Kathleen had discovered Michael’s alleged secret “gay life” and wanted to end their marriage. It was the main motive that the prosecution offered at trial for Kathleen’s alleged murder (the other being a $1.5 million life insurance policy). According to Assistant District Attorney Freda Black, Kathleen
would have been infuriated by learning that her husband, who she truly loved, was bi-sexual and having an extramarital relationship—not with another woman—but a man, which would have been humiliating and embarrassing to her. We believe that once she learned this information that an argument ensued and a homicide occurred.
The defense argued that Kathleen accepted Michael’s bisexuality and that the marriage was very happy, a position supported by Michael and Kathleen’s children and other friends and associates.
The prosecution said that Kathleen’s murder was most likely committed with a custom-made fireplace poker called a blow poke. It had been a gift to the Petersons from Kathleen’s sister but was missing from the house at the time of the investigation. Late in the trial the defense team produced the missing blow poke, which they said had been overlooked in the garage by police investigators. Forensic tests revealed that it had been untouched and unmoved for too long to have been used in the murder. A juror contacted after the trial noted that the jury dismissed the idea of the blow poke as the murder weapon.
Suspicion surrounding Elizabeth Ratliff’s death
Elizabeth Ratliff, the friend of the Petersons who died in Germany in 1985, had also been found dead at the foot of her staircase with injuries to the head. Her death had been investigated by both the German police and U.S. military police. An autopsy at the time of her death concluded Ratliff died from an intra-cerebral haemorrhage secondary to the blood coagulation disorder Von Willebrand’s disease, based on blood in her cerebrospinal fluid and reports that she had been suffering severe, persistent headaches in the weeks leading up to her death. The coroner determined that the hemorrhage resulted in immediate death followed by Ratliff falling down the stairs after collapsing. The Petersons had dinner with Ratliff and her daughters, and Peterson had stayed and helped Ratliff put the children to bed before going home. The children’s nanny, Barbara, discovered the body when she arrived the next morning. Peterson was the last known person to see her alive.
Before Peterson’s trial, the Durham court ordered the exhumation of Ratliff’s embalmed body, buried in Texas, for a second autopsy in April 2003. Arrangements were made for the Durham medical examiner, who had initially performed Kathleen’s autopsy, to perform this reevaluation, over the objections of defense counsel who argued that the autopsy should be performed by Texas medical examiners. The body was then transported from Texas to Durham. The Durham M.E. found sufficient evidence drawn from the results of the second autopsy, along with new witness statements describing the scene, to overturn the earlier findings and list Ratliff’s cause of death as “homicide”.
The prosecution declined to accuse Peterson of Ratliff’s death, but introduced the death into the trial as an incident giving Peterson the idea of how to “fake” Kathleen’s accident. Despite police reports that there was very little blood at the scene of Ratliff’s death, the nanny, who was the first to discover Ratliff’s body in 1985, took the stand at Peterson’s trial and testified that there was a large amount of blood at the scene. Another witness testified to spending much of the day cleaning blood stains off the wall. The admissibility of the Ratliff evidence in court was one of the grounds for the subsequent appeal against his conviction, lodged by Peterson’s lawyers in 2005.
In October 2002, acting as administrator of Kathleen’s estate, Caitlin filed a wrongful death claim against Peterson. In June 2006, he voluntarily filed for bankruptcy. Two weeks later, Caitlin filed an objection to the bankruptcy. On February 1, 2007, Caitlin and Peterson settled the wrongful death claim for $25 million, pending acceptance by the courts involved; finalization of the settlement by the court was announced on February 1, 2008. In the settlement, Peterson did not admit that he murdered Kathleen.
On October 10, 2003, after one of the longest trials in North Carolina history, a Durham County jury found Peterson guilty of the murder of Kathleen, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Denial of parole requires premeditation. Despite the jury accepting the murder was a “spur-of-the-moment” crime, they also found it was premeditated. As one juror explained it, premeditated meant not only planning hours or days ahead, but could also mean planning in the seconds before committing a spur-of-the-moment crime. Peterson was housed at the Nash Correctional Institution near Rocky Mount until he was released on December 16, 2011.
Peterson’s appeal was filed by his defense counsel, Thomas Maher, now serving as his court-appointed attorney, and was argued before the North Carolina Court of Appeals on April 18, 2006. On September 19, the Court of Appeals rejected Peterson’s arguments that he did not get a fair trial because of repeated judicial mistakes. The Appeals’ ruling said the evidence was fairly admitted. The judges did find defects in a search warrant, but said they had no ill effect on the defense. Because the ruling was not unanimous, under North Carolina law, Peterson had right to appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which accepted the case. Oral argument was heard on September 10, 2007. On November 9, the Court announced that it affirmed the decision of the Appeals. Absent a reconsideration of the ruling or the raising of a federal issue, Peterson had exhausted his appeal of the verdict.
On November 12, 2008, attorneys J. Burkhardt Beale and Jason Anthony of Richmond, Virginia, who were now representing Peterson, filed a motion for a new trial in Durham County court on three grounds: that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence about the blow poke, that the prosecution used an expert witness whose qualifications were disputed, and that one juror based his judgment on racial factors. On March 10, 2009, Peterson’s motion was denied by the Durham County Superior Court.
In late 2009, a new theory of Kathleen’s death was raised: that she had been attacked by an owl outside, fallen after rushing inside, and been knocked unconscious after hitting her head on the first tread of the stairs. The owl theory was raised by Durham attorney T. Lawrence Pollard, a neighbor of the Petersons who was not involved in the case but had been following the public details. He approached the police suggesting an owl might have been responsible after reading the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) evidence list and finding a “feather” listed. Peterson’s attorneys had determined that the SBI crime lab report listed a microscopic owl feather and a wooden sliver from a tree limb entangled in a clump of hair that had been pulled out by the roots found clutched in Kathleen’s left hand. A re-examination of the hair in September 2008 had found two more microscopic owl feathers.
According to Pollard, had a jury been presented with this evidence it would have “materially affected their deliberation and therefore would have materially affected their ultimate verdict”. Prosecutors have ridiculed the claim, and Deborah Radisch, who conducted Kathleen’s autopsy, says it was unlikely that an owl or any other bird could have made wounds as deep as those on her scalp. However, Radisch’s opinion was challenged by other experts in three separate affidavits filed in 2010.
Despite interest in this theory among some outside advocates, no motion for a new trial was filed on this point in 2009. On March 2, 2017 (following his Alford plea), Peterson’s attorney filed a motion to allow him to pay for a bird expert at the Smithsonian Institution to examine feather fragments found in Kathleen’s hair to determine if she was attacked by a raptor.
In August 2010, following a series of newspaper articles critical of the SBI, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper led an investigation which resulted in the suspension of SBI analyst Duane Deaver, one of the principal witnesses against Peterson, after the report found his work among the worst done on scores of flawed criminal cases. Pollard subsequently filed affidavits to support a motion that Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson order the state Medical Examiner’s Office to turn over all documentation related to Kathleen’s autopsy to Peterson’s attorneys. However, Judge Hudson barred Pollard from filing further motions on behalf of Peterson because he did not represent him. A new motion was filed in August 2010 by David Rudolf, one of Peterson’s original attorneys, who acted pro bono in proceedings challenging the SBI testimony.
Deaver was fired from the SBI in January 2011, after an independent audit of the agency found he had falsely represented evidence in 34 cases, including withholding negative results in the case of Greg Taylor, a North Carolina man who spent seventeen years in prison on a murder conviction based on Deaver’s testimony. A bloodstain-analysis team that Deaver had trained was suspended and disbanded. In the 2003 Peterson trial, Deaver testified that he had been mentored by SBI bloodstain specialist David Spittle, had worked 500 bloodstain cases, written 200 reports, and testified in 60 cases. During the retrial hearing, SBI Assistant Director Eric Hooks testified that Deaver had written only 47 reports. Spittle testified that he could not recall mentoring Deaver who, since completing a two-day training course in the 1980s, had testified in only four cases, the Peterson case being the third. The SBI cited the bloodstain analysis given in the fourth case as the reason for firing Deaver.
On December 16, 2011, Peterson was released from the Durham County jail on $300,000 bail and placed under house arrest with a tracking anklet. His release on bond followed a judicial order for a new trial after Judge Hudson found that Deaver had given “materially misleading” and “deliberately false” testimony about bloodstain evidence, and had exaggerated his training, experience, and expertise. Former North Carolina Attorney General Rufus Edmisten said that any evidence gathered after Deaver arrived at the scene might be deemed inadmissible in a new trial. In July 2014, Peterson’s bond restrictions were eased.
In October 2014, the court appointed Mike Klinkosum to represent Peterson, replacing David Rudolf, who had been working pro bono on the case since Peterson’s conviction was overturned. Rudolf had stated that he could no longer afford to represent Peterson without being paid. On November 14, 2016, Peterson’s request for the second trial to be dismissed was refused, and a new trial was scheduled to begin on May 8, 2017. However, a news report on February 7, 2017, indicated that a resolution had been negotiated by Rudolf (once again representing Peterson) and the Durham County District Attorney.
On February 24, 2017, Peterson entered an Alford plea (a guilty plea entered because sufficient evidence exists to convict him of the offense, but the defendant asserts innocence) to the voluntary manslaughter of Kathleen. The judge sentenced him to a maximum of 86 months in prison, with credit for time previously served. Because Peterson had already served more time than the sentence (98.5 months), he did not face additional prison time.
Films about the case
The court case generated widespread interest in part because of a televised documentary series variously named Soupçons (Suspicions), Death on the Staircase, and The Staircase, which detailed Peterson’s legal and personal troubles. Eight 45-minute episodes of the documentary were assembled from more than 600 hours of footage. It was directed by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and released by Maha Productions in October 2004. The documentary offers an intimate depiction of defense preparations for the trial. It also examines the role and behavior of the press as it covered aspects of the case. The filmmakers started their project within weeks of Kathleen’s death and Peterson’s murder indictment; jury selection took place in May 2003 with the case itself going to trial in July 2003.
Following the guilty verdict, de Lestrade interviewed the jurors to find out why they reached their verdict. By and large, the jurors were swayed by the amount of blood Kathleen lost and the number of lacerations, which indicated to them it could not have been an accident. Henry Lee, however, had testified at the trial that the amount of blood was irrelevant, as the blood spatter indicated most of it was coughed up rather than from the wounds themselves. He also suggested some of the blood could have been diluted with urine. Lee had also duplicated blood spatter from coughing for the jury by drinking ketchup and spitting it out.
In November 2012, de Lestrade released a sequel, The Staircase 2: The Last Chance, which premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. The film documents Peterson’s family and his legal team’s arguments in seeking a retrial, in which they succeed.
Television productions about the case
- The Staircase, a French miniseries which got new episodes through Netflix
- “A Novel Idea” Forensic Files
- “Debut” Cold Case
- “Written in Blood” The New Detectives
- “Blood on the Staircase” American Justice
- “Murder, He Wrote” Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege, and Justice
- “Staircase Killer” True Crime with Aphrodite Jones
- “Stairway to Hell” The Devil You Know
- “Reversal of Fortune” Dateline NBC
- “Death on the Staircase” Storyville
- “The Staircase II: The Last Chance” Storyville
- “Down the Back Staircase” Dateline NBC
- Trial and Error Season One – Loosely based
Radio productions about the case
- Criminal: “Animal Instincts”
- The Generation Why Podcast: “The Staircase”
- BBC Radio 5 Live: “Beyond Reasonable Doubt?”
- My Favorite Murder “The 100th Episode”
Novels written by Peterson
- The Immortal Dragon (New American Library, 1983) – historical fiction LCCN 2009-665719
- A Time of War (Pocket Books, 1990) – Vietnam War fiction LCCN 89-49197
- A Bitter Peace (Pocket Books, 1995) – Vietnam War fiction LCCN 94-37559
- Charlie Two Shoes and the Marines of Love Company, Peterson and David Perlmutt (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998) – biography LCCN 98-30090
- Operation Broken Reed, with Lt. Col. Arthur L. Boyd (Da Capo Press, 2007) – Korean War autobiography
“Guide to the Michael Peterson papers, 1961–2001 and undated, bulk 1972” Archived October 20, 2014, at the Wayback Machine. David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University (duke.edu/rubenstein). Retrieved October 19, 2014.
- Works by or about Michael Peterson in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
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