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

The Indictment of Michael Peterson

Attorney David S. Rudolf and Client Michael Peterson

“Our position is that he had absolutely nothing to do with it. It was an accident and it happened while he was not in the house. They were soulmates.” ~David Rudolf

“We have a very clear picture of what happened that night. There is no question in my mind that Michael Peterson killed Kathleen, and the evidence will support that.” ~Jim Hardin, Pre-Trial

A Special Grand Jury decided there was sufficient evidence gathered by police to warrant a trial in the case.

On December 20, 2001, Michael Peterson was indicted on the charge of first-degree murder for the death of Kathleen. He spent three weeks in jail.

On January 14, 2001, was released from prison, when a judge set an $850,000 secured bond for him.

Before trial, the court denied defendant’s motion to suppress all evidence seized as a result of the December 9, 10, and 12, 2001 search warrants.

“Jim Hardin and his office indicted Michael Peterson in 11 days. If anyone is in a rush here, it’s the DA’s office. Michael Peterson has this hanging over his head and we’d like to do everything we can to make it a speedy trial and resolve all this.” ~Defense Attorney David Rudolf

Michael Peterson maintained his innocence throughout.

“When I called 9-1-1, I thought she’d fallen down the stairs. As far as I know, that’s what happened.” ~Michael Peterson

“The truth is Kathleen Peterson, after drinking some wine and some champagne and taking some valium, tried to walk up a narrow, poorly lit stairway in flip-flops. She fell and bled to death.” ~David Rudolf

The Trial: State of North Carolina v. Michael Iver Peterson

12 Jurors | 70 Witnesses | 500 Pieces of Evidence

May 5, 2003Jury Selection Began
July 1, 2003Opening Statements Began
October 2, 2003Defense Closing
October 3, 2003Prosecution Closing
October 10, 2003Jurors Verdict
Michael Peterson’s Durham, North Carolina Court Trial

Prosecutors contend that Michael Peterson, a 59-year-old author and former newspaper columnist, killed his 48-year-old wife for money and made her death appear to be an accidental fall. They also believed Peterson may have somehow been connected to the death of Elizabeth Ratliff, Margaret and Martha’s birth mother, a family friend Peterson met while living in Germany.

“This defendant was attempting to stage certain aspects of the scene so it would appear how he wanted it to appear.” ~District Attorney Jim Hardin

Excerpts from District Attorney Jim Hardin’s Opening Statements

The Defendant says that Kathleen Peterson’s death was caused by a tragic, accidental fall downstairs in their home. And we say, on the other hand, that she died a horrible, painful death at the hands of her husband, Michael Peterson.

“From all the appearances, this was a perfect family. But as the old saying goes, appearances can be very deceiving. The evidence is going to show that the Petersons had developed a huge appetite for expensive living. With Kathleen’s salary and benefits during an 18-year career at Nortel, it was possible to cultivate a taste for fine things, and they certainly did that. They were able to do this because, for much of the time, there was plenty of money, and the potential of greater wealth at Nortel was always on the horizon.”

“Then, like an ominous storm cloud, the picture began to change. This changing situation was something that Mike Peterson couldn’t tolerate, primarily because he couldn’t control it. Like a storm cloud, many pressurized conditions in the Peterson house began to converge, and on Dec. 9, 2001, they erupted.”

“The evidence is going to show that for several years prior to her death, Kathleen—not Mike, but Kathleen—was the primary financial support for the Peterson-Atwater-Ratliff family. They all depended on her for virtually everything. And in particular, they depended upon her substantial, steady salary and all-encompassing benefit package, which were available to her because of her Nortel employment.”

“We will call witnesses, family members, co-workers and Nortel persons, and a financial analyst from the State Bureau of Investigation to describe the financial predicament that the Petersons had put themselves into over a period of time. They had had to begin living on credit. They were forced to liquidate Kathleen’s assets. And out of all this, the evidence is also going to show how, by the end of 1999, Michael Peterson was making no income as a writer. And that during the year of 2000 and 2001, he made no income as a writer and only had a modest income from a military pension.”

“The evidence is going to show that Kathleen was carrying almost the entire financial burden for the family, and that it was overwhelming. You might imagine that it would be. How tough can it be to have several children in college, multiple mortgages and expensive tastes and habits? It takes a lot to do those things.”

“To help put this into context, we are going to call witnesses that will talk about the financial and personnel environment that Kathleen and others found themselves in at Nortel. These witnesses will describe that the fortunes of Nortel had deteriorated, and as that happened, everyone at Nortel began to worry about whether they were going to have a job. This included Kathleen and everyone around her.”

“There is going to be evidence that Nortel, because of its financial condition, had to lay off people, and Kathleen was involved in that process and was intimately aware of all that was involved in laying off people at Nortel because of Nortel’s deteriorating financial condition.”

“Kathleen and Michael both knew that the loss of Kathleen’s job and the loss of her salary and benefits would have a devastating effect on an already difficult financial situation.”

“But Mike Peterson, the creative thinker, the writer of fiction, was able to figure out a perfect solution. That solution was to make it appear as though Kathleen accidentally fell down her steps and died. And, like magic, no more money problems. Like magic, Mike Peterson goes from a point where they are going to have to sell assets and live on credit to survive to, all of a sudden, with her death, has 1.8 million dollars in his hand. That’s a lot of money. That solves a lot of problems. What a wonderful solution. There’s only one catch. He’s got to kill Kathleen Peterson to get that 1.8 million. But Mike Peterson, with that money, was going to be able to pull himself out of the financial fire he had built for himself. Kathleen’s death, accidental death, would then have allowed him to continue to live the affluent privileged life to which he had become accustomed even though he had no job.”

Jim Hardin’s Opening Statement: Court TV

“The first sign that things were not as they appeared at the Peterson house was with the 9-1-1 call that he makes on December the 9th, 2001 at 2:40 in the morning. With that phone call, he gambles a lot. With that phone call, he gambles that the police are as dumb as he thinks they are. With that phone call, he gambles that the police would see Kathleen’s death as he wanted it to appear and as he wanted them to believe it to be.” ~Jim Hardin’s opening

As he listened to the 9-1-1 tape being played for the jury by prosecutors in his first-degree murder trial, Peterson first stared at the floor and then looked straight ahead. Then he removed his eyeglasses and cried.

Defense attorney David Rudolf asked the dispatcher whether she typed the word “hysterical” into a computer to describe Michael Peterson’s demeanor during his call to 911 about 2:40 a.m.

“Hysterical … That’s what you put in that form …  Because that’s the way he struck you,” Rudolf said, looking for confirmation.

“Yes, sir,” Allen replied.

Emergency operator Tonya Pearce testified about a second call Peterson placed to 911 asking where the ambulance was. Prosecutor Jim Hardin honed in with a question that suggested Peterson could have been putting on an act.

“If the caller was feigning … would you have any way of knowing that?” Hardin asked.

“No, I would not,” Pearce answered.

Jurors also heard from one of the first Durham, North Carolina police officers to reach the Peterson home after the defendant called 911. Cpl. J.C. McDowell testified that something didn’t seem right to her from the start.

McDowell said that after being told Kathleen Peterson was dead and seeing a large amount of blood, she called for detectives and crime scene technicians. “It didn’t look consistent with someone falling down steps,” she testified.

A firefighter who had been a deputy sheriff testified that he suggested McDowell should keep people away because the area might become a crime scene.

The defense attacked the handling of the scene, arguing that traffic through the house could account for blood found in places one would not expect to see if Kathleen Peterson had really died from a fall.

“What we are contending is that she fell backward on a step at the lower portion of the stairwell and split her scalp open. She tried to get up, slipped on the bloody floor, hit her head again and died of blood loss.” ~David Rudolf

In order to convict Michael Peterson of first-degree murder, prosecutors must prove five legal “elements” beyond a reasonable doubt:

  • Peterson acted with malice.
  • Peterson’s actions were the “proximate cause” of his wife’s death.
  • Peterson intended to kill his spouse. (Intent is “seldom provable by direct evidence” but may be inferred from a chain of circumstances.)
  • Peterson premeditated his wife’s death. (Premeditation exists when someone forms the intent to kill “over some period of time, however short.”)
  • Peterson acted with deliberation.

Possible Motives

Prosecutors contend that Michael Peterson, a 59-year-old author and former newspaper columnist, killed his 48-year-old wife for money and made her death appear to be an accidental fall.

Prosecutors would later contend that Kathleen stumbled upon the trove of photos and messages while using Michael’s computer—she had left her own machine at work that day. She confronted Michael about cheating on her, there was an argument, and he beat her to death with a blowpoke or fireplace implement, they alleged. He made a futile attempt to get rid of blood evidence and then called 911, the prosecution contended.

Tunnel Vision

“Tunnel vision is what happened in this case,” David Rudolf instructed the Durham jury toward the end of his closing statement.

As proof, he pointed out that the fireplace blower/poker prosecutors alleged Michael Peterson concealed after beating his wife—was never missing—it had been sitting in the defendant’s garage/basement but was overlooked by police.

“The state developed what is called tunnel vision,” Rudolf lectured. “They just ignored the fact that it wasn’t missing. It just hadn’t been used in several years.” In a very persuasive argument, Peterson’s primary attorney told jurors the blowpoke was irrelevant.

The smooth-talking attorney had no comment, however, when word first surfaced last week that Michael Peterson had purchased two blowpokes and had them shipped to his home by overnight air on Monday September 29. Several newspapers featured a quote from Alechia Maguire, manager of Hurlbutt Designs in Kennebunk, Maine: “Someone identifying himself as Mike Peterson . . . left a message that he needed them immediately.”

You Can Watch the Full Trial on Court TV’s Videos: Opening Statements through the Verdict


Page 5: The Financial Motive