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

The Bloody Stairwell Scene

Although forensic expert Dr. Henry Lee, hired by the 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 Michael Peterson was the only person at the residence at the time of Kathleen’s death, he was the prime suspect.

Bloody Stairs, Blood Smears, Blood Splatter

Blood on the stairs

Blood Splatter on the Wall

North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation

N.C. State Bureau of Investigation Analyst, Duane Deaver, virtually placed Michael Peterson at the center of the bloody beating of his wife in a stairwell.

Deaver’s Conclusions about the Stairwell

  • Kathleen Peterson’s death was “not consistent with a fall.”
  • The assailant stood just outside the doorway when the attack began. Kathleen Peterson was beaten with something like a fireplace blow poke as she stood on the sixth or seventh step from the bottom.
  • Some bloodstains resulted from Kathleen Peterson’s head being struck as she was standing. One stain indicated her head was battered 27 inches above the stairway.
  • Someone attempted to clean blood from the stairway and wall.
  • The fourth step from the bottom of the stairs, near where Kathleen Peterson’s body was found, “has been cleaned in almost its entirety. It took some effort to clean that step as clean as it is,” Deaver said.
  • As for the wall, “There are some runs in that pattern, which indicate to me that a liquid was applied to that place, cleaning it completely clear of blood,” he testified. “There was some effort to remove blood completely. It created smears all the way around there.”
  • Based on spots of blood, Deaver said he had “no doubt” that someone moved Kathleen Peterson’s body before attempting to clean up and struck her again afterward.

Deaver’s Conclusions about the Clothing

  • The wearer of the khaki shorts and white Converse All-Star sneakers was in “close proximity” to Kathleen Peterson, even “standing over her.”
  • “The wearer of those shoes and those shorts was involved in impacting the source of blood, in this case the victim, at some time.”
  • Deaver said he believed Kathleen Peterson “was actually standing at some point in blood, to get blood on the bottom of her feet.” The blood was deep enough that “even the arches of her feet were coated with it.”
  • Kathleen Peterson was in “various positions” when the attack occurred. “She is at some time standing after bloodshed occurred,” Deaver said.
  • “She at some time is face up in the scene when bloodshed is occurring, and some time she is face down when these impacts occurred.”
  • Kathleen Peterson was lying face down when a shoe imprintpresumably matching the defendant’s shoe—was made on the back of her sweatpants. “I have an opinion that these shoes were in motion, the source of blood [Kathleen Peterson] was in motion or they both were in motion.”

S.B.I. agent Joyce Petzka said she found a shoe print on Kathleen Peterson’s clothes which matched Peterson’s white leather Converse All-Star athletic shoes. According to Petzka, the design, size and wear pattern of the left athletic shoe was “consistent” with the print on the back of Kathleen Peterson’s sweatpants.

Bloody Footprint on the Back of Kathleen Peterson’s Sweatpants

Why Would a Bloody Footprint be Found on the Back of Kathleen’s Sweatpants?

Problems with Deaver’s Analysis and Findings

One piece of key evidence that was overlooked was Michael’s navy-blue shirt. Deaver said bloodstain pattern analysis is a “visual examination” and since he did not see blood on the shirt it was not tested. In reality, not all blood spatters can be seen with the naked eye. There are other methods to enhance one’s ability to see blood such as chemical techniques or alternative light sources. Deaver eventually admitted that he did do a Luma-Light test on Michael’s shirt and did not find blood spatter, supporting the defense. This information was withheld from the defense team and came out during the trial.

Another problem was with Deaver’s experiment. He lifted his leg and pulled his shorts leg open before beating the sponge with an object that resembled a blow poke, a guaranteed way to get blood in the shorts and match the evidence. The sponge was also moved to a location in the staircase that could be struck more easily by a blow poke than in the location Deaver calculated Kathleen’s head was allegedly hit.

Furthermore, the instructions from the police department were to do DNA testing on Michael and Kathleen’s clothing before bloodstain analysis. Susie Baker, who worked with Deaver, changed the instructions to have the clothing sent straight to Deaver for bloodstain analysis. The evidence was never tested for DNA and was not stored properly.

“State records show that a death from a fall in a stairwell is extremely rare and usually comes from a broken neck or intercranial bleeding. In more than 25 years, there is no report in North Carolina of a fall downstairs causing scalp lacerations that led to a fatal loss of blood.” ~Vance Holmes


Page 4: The Indictment of Michael Peterson and The Trial