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

State of North Carolina v. Michael Iver Peterson

On October 10, 2003, at the end of the longest trial in Durham’s history, jurors returned a verdict declaring Michael Peterson guilty of murdering his wife, Kathleen Peterson.

Mrs. Kathleen Peterson

During his opening statement to the jury, District Attorney Jim Hardin said, “Kathleen can’t come in here and tell you what happened to her. Ms. Black and I have to speak for her. And we will do that in the presentation of this case. Ultimately, it’s going to be your responsibility to determine what the truth is and to render an appropriate verdict. We contend that once you have heard this case, you will determine the truth, and at that point, Ms. Black and I ask that you return a verdict of guilty to the charge of first-degree murder against Michael Peterson.”

In the end, there was just too much evidence against Michael Peterson. His 2003 trial ended in a first-degree murder conviction and a sentence of life without parole.

Off he went to North Carolina’s Correctional Facility in Nash.

Those who had chosen to support him were completely crestfallen. Once it was proven that the fiction writer had in fact murdered Kathleen Peterson on December 11, 2001—there was no reasonable doubt that for quite some time, he’d been telling outrageous lies.

The reality of Kathleen Peterson’s killing wasn’t the only truth exposed on October 10. The defendant’s family had to finally face the fact that he’d spent many years and a million dollars in a truly evil attempt to blame the crime on his victim.

From the beginning, Michael insisted his wife had been acting recklessly, had become manic and was generally ill. He claimed she’d downed booze and prescription pills the night of her death, which directly caused her to fatally fall.

Most court-watchers assumed it was the final chapter for the novelist when, after the verdict was read, he was immediately sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.

“On the first day when we voted… on one element, it was unanimous. It was not a fall. It was definitely a homicide,” said a male Juror.

“I don’t think you can call a guilty verdict anything other than a defeat,” Attorney David Rudolf said, “but it’s not a final defeat.”

Assistant District Attorney Freda Black, accused by Tom Maher of making inappropriate remarks during her closing argument, offered some very appropriate remarks to the press. She said the victim’s loved ones will be pleased that “they can finally lay Kathleen to rest.” Ms. Black also said, “I’m thankful that we’ve got a positive result and it’s finally over.”

“It was the most complex case I’ve ever tried and the longest case I’ve ever tried. It took me quite a while afterward, several months, to build up enough energy to try a serious case again. That trial drained me emotionally.” ~Judge Orlando F. Hudson

Michael Peterson’s Interview with Katina Rankin of WTVD After Being Found Guilty

Katina: “If you are innocent, you don’t think you’re going to be convicted.”

Peterson: “I was shocked. I didn’t believe it. I didn’t believe it would happen. When the woman read guilty, I was just, just flinched back… But then what can you do? So, yes, I was very surprised.”

“From the beginning from the first day, the district attorney said this is the weapon. He killed his wife with this. Over and over and over again, the blowpoke, the blowpoke. And then… oh, it wasn’t the blowpoke.”

“Well of course I thought, well, that’s the only thing he’s basing his case on is this blowpoke, and then it wasn’t the blow poke… so of course I thought, well for all of these other reasons including the fact that I certainly didn’t kill Kathleen… well, I certainly didn’t kill her with the blowpoke… so I thought of course, this solves the problem for the case.
And then I find out it didn’t even make any difference to the jury. Something else must have caused those injuries, but nobody knows what.”

“To hear them describe Liz’s death, this woman that I have known forever. I raised her children. This is the mother of these children, and then they would bring in the autopsy photographs, pictures of her in the coffin. It was just awful.”

“I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t [impact the jury]. Every day in the newspaper. It was a major event. The prosecution goes to Germany. The coffin is exhumed. The coffin goes Chapel Hill. The body is examined. On and on. It was the main focus for weeks before the trial and once the trial began. The macabre fascination. What does the body look like after 18 years in the grave… for anybody to say that that didn’t have affect, that’s just insanity. That’s just an outrageous lie to say that didn’t have an effect on them.”

“I mean it had nothing, nothing to do with what was real, it had nothing to do with anything… to see that and see what it did to Margaret and Martha — that hurt. It was just awful. That hurt I suppose as much as anything did.”

“The worst thing that happened, happened in the past. Losing Kathleen, losing my children. That’s done with. That was the worst. So, when the worst already happens, you can deal with anything that happens after that.”

“I have pictures in my cell of her and it’s comforting. So that helps, but if I stop to think about what it meant now that she’s gone, or I have pictures of the children or the dogs, they help, on a superficial basis to see, but if I start to think about them deeply — it’s the loss of them that is so painful. If I stop and think about Kathleen, I cry.”

1810 Cedar Street

August 2, 2004. The house was sold for $640,000, far less than the original asking price of $1.175 million.

Peterson’s Incarceration

Corrections officers at the prison didn’t always find him as charming as his old dinner party friends did, and he earned some time in solitary for mouthing off, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.

Convicted killer and former Durham mayoral candidate Michael Peterson served 10 days in segregation at Nash Correctional Institution after he was found with another prisoner’s medications, authorities said. This was Peterson’s second time in segregation in the past month. Correction officers placed Peterson, 63, a former newspaper columnist and novelist, in segregation July 12 while they investigated unspecified allegations against him. In segregation, Peterson was isolated from other inmates, confined to his cell for 23 hours a day and denied visitor, television and phone privileges. WRAL News Brief, August 20, 2007


Page 9: Caitlin Atwater’s Civil Case Against Michael Peterson for the Wrongful Death of Her Mother, Kathleen Peterson