Kathleen Peterson’s Mysterious Staircase Death: Accident or Homicide?

Michael Peterson’s Appeals

On March 4, 2002 and February 14, 2003 defendant filed motions to suppress the evidence seized from the Peterson home. On 31 March 2003 the trial court conducted a hearing on these motions. The trial court’s order, entered on 28 April 2003, contains nineteen findings of fact and five conclusions of law determining that the police had probable cause for the issuance of each of the three search warrants used to search and process the Peterson house during the time after Kathleen’s death. Defendant argues that each warrant was invalid. Specifically, he argues each affidavit supporting the warrants was void of sufficient facts to suggest probable cause that a crime had been committed.

Investigator Holland obtained an initial search warrant for the Peterson residence and one Jaguar vehicle on 9 December 2001 at 6:04 a.m. The probable cause was based on the relay of information regarding an excessive amount of blood at the base of the stairs, blood “all over” defendant, and blood droplets on the door and sidewalk outside.

The property to be seized was identified with some level of particularity. Fingerprints, bloodstains, fired and unfired bullets and casings, any and all other weapons, footwear impressions, trace hair and clothing fibers, physical layout of the premises, measurements of the premises, moving pictures, video, and still pictures to preserve the nature of the crime scene; documentary evidence indicating ownership, possession and control of the premises; and any and all evidence that may relate to the Death Investigation.

Thus, this first search warrant was sought and issued within a matter of hours after police discovered Kathleen’s body. The probable cause outlines that Kathleen suffered a fall down a set of stairs. There was an excessive amount of blood located around the body for a fall located around the body and down the stairs. There was also blood at various points inside and outside the house. Notably, the victim’s husband’s hands and clothes were covered in blood. Under a deferential standard, these statements are sufficient to at least suggest something more than a fall and perhaps even a homicide, albeit that innocent explanations for the blood also might exist. “Probable cause is a flexible, common-sense standard. It does not demand any showing that such a belief be correct or more likely true than false. A practical, nontechnical probability is all that is required.

Accordingly, looking for a weapon, whether that be a blunt object, sharp object, or gun would be sufficient based on this evidence. Further, ascertaining evidence about the scene would also be justified, including pictures, measurements, fingerprints, impressions, or fibers. Even without a warrant, police can search an entire home for other victims or assailants, securing items in plain view, if they believe a homicide could have occurred.

The second search warrant, issued on 10 December 2001, was identical to the first warrant, except that four different motor vehicles were substituted for the motor vehicle listed in the first warrant.

The third warrant is similar in many respects to the first two. The warrant recites an identical “property to be seized” section, save for one change. The warrant includes the statement: “Evidence to be seized shall include computers, CPUs, files, software, accessories and any and all other evidence that may be associated with this investigation.” The probable cause stated in the affidavit supporting the seizure of computers in the homicide investigation is identical to that recited before: amount of blood at scene of fall; the location of blood on defendant, the house, and exterior areas; and the background of Investigator Holland. The additional facts that separate this warrant from the others are merely that: “After conferring with the District Attorney’s Office and the State Medical Examiners Office, this applicant has probable cause to believe that additional evidence remains at the residence.”

North Carolina Court of Appeals

After careful consideration, we determine that the State has met its burden in this case; the evidence and testimony admitted in defendant’s trial pursuant to the third warrant did not prejudice defendant in light of other properly admitted evidence. Evidence from a search of defendant’s computer is the crux of what was recovered and admitted pursuant to the invalid warrant. That evidence suggested that the Petersons were possibly in financial difficulty, that defendant had homosexual interests, that an e-mail was sent to Kathleen the night of her death, and perhaps that the Petersons’ marriage was strained. This same evidence was presented through numerous other sources: Helen Prislinger testified about sending the e-mail to defendant’s account; ample evidence of defendant’s possible predilection for homosexuality was introduced by printed e-mails and photos seized from the desk drawer next to the computer pursuant to a valid warrant; and copious amounts of evidence and testimony was admitted regarding the Petersons’ faltering financial condition. As such, the evidence introduced pursuant to the invalid warrant was nothing more than repetition of other properly admitted evidence, thereby rendering its impact on the jury harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.

“As defense counsel, in his opening statement, extensively discussed defendant and Kathleen’s relationship and portrayed the marriage as a happy and loving one, the trial court properly found that evidence of defendant’s attempts to have sexual relations with a male escort and interest in homosexual pornography were relevant to rebut defense counsel’s opening statement.” Judge Elmore N.C. Court of Appeals

Michael Peterson (defendant) appeals from a judgment entered consistent with the jury’s verdict finding him Guilty of first-degree murder. After a thorough review of the record, relevant law, and arguments of the parties, we hold that defendant received a trial free from prejudicial error; as such, we affirm the judgment against him. N.C. Court of Appeals

On September 19, 2006, it was announced that Michael Peterson had lost in the Court of Appeals. However, since one of the three judges dissented, Peterson’s attorney may now take the appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court. After that, there is no further place to appeal a conviction.

North Carolina Supreme Court

Signaling a sudden end to the long legal drama, Tom Maher confirmed for the News-Observer that the state Supreme Court has agreed to hear Michael Peterson’s appeal. The hearing is set for September 10. Mr. Mahar said he’d focus on three issues:

1. Whether police, after executing two properly drawn search warrants, violated the defendant’s constitutional rights with a third that was improperly filed, and therefore denied him a fair trial.

2. Whether jurors were wrongly influenced by Freda Black’s closing arguments which addressed defense allegations of corrupt police and prejudiced prosecutors determined to take revenge on the out-spoken newspaper columnist.

3. Whether Judge Hudson should have allowed prosecutors to use 404B evidence about Elizabeth Ratliff’s 1985 staircase murder to establish an absence of accident in Kathleen Peterson’s 2001 staircase murder.

“Because we hold that admission of the evidence seized pursuant to the third search warrant was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt, that the trial court did not err in admitting evidence concerning the death of Elizabeth Ratliff, and that the prosecutor’s closing arguments did not amount to reversible error, we affirm the decision of the Court of Appeals.” N.C. Supreme Court

“This trial spanned five months, and the record contains thousands of pages of transcripts. The offending statements by Ms. Black spanned less than five minutes.”
— N.C. Supreme Court