A heavily-publicized murder trial that severed a family and shocked the nation.
The trial of Michael Peterson presented the public with two competing narratives. The defense claimed that after a night of drinking, Peterson’s wife Kathleen fell down a dark staircase—a terrible accident. The prosecution argued that Peterson beat his wife over the head multiple times by the staircase—a horrific murder. Despite reasonable doubt in both arguments, Peterson’s jury of peers found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in prison without parole. After serving eight years, Peterson accepted an Alford plea, acknowledging that the state had enough evidence to convict him at his new trial set for May 2017.
Over the past sixteen years, journalists have depicted Peterson in one of two ways: as an activist—at least a man desperately trying to be a hero in his home and community—or as an egotistical murderer flawed by his own ambition, desire, and denial. While Peterson’s public persona has allowed for these two conflicting profiles, Peterson has not been the only player acting in this dualistic way. Many family members rejected the attention of the press, and yet often put on a scene for the cameras. Reporters wanted to hold the players accountable, but some perhaps went too far. Both district and defense attorneys claimed they were telling the truth of Kathleen’s death, yet both sides wanted to win, no matter the expense. The case was already filled with contradictory facts, and the cameras caught the contrary actions of its players.
Friday, February 24, 2017
Michael Peterson reclined in his chair, facing the front left corner of the courtroom, where eight large video cameras recorded his every move. He rested his left hand over his mouth. Fifteen years after the death of his second wife, Kathleen, and his subsequent prison time, he still wore his wedding ring. Peterson, sporting a black suit with a green shirt and tie, looked tired, aged. Besides the slight tremor in his hand, he remained still while everyone else scurried around the courtroom.
David Rudolf, Peterson’s defense lawyer since 2001, fidgeted as a news anchor tried to fix a microphone to him. Rudolf joked to her, “You’re not going to have to undress me in court, are you?” They laughed as she fastened it under his shirt. Rudolf then turned to greet Patricia Sue Peterson, Michael’s first wife. Patty, wearing a floral jumpsuit and rose-tinted glasses, sat poised directly behind the defense table.
A few moments later, Caitlin Atwater burst through the courtroom door, seemingly dragging her husband by his hand to a seat behind the prosecution. Caitlin, Kathleen’s only biological daughter, was the only child in the blended Peterson family who, since 2001, believed that her adoptive father killed her mother. The other four children—Todd, Clayton, Margaret, and Martha—were nowhere to be found.
Outside of the courthouse, one of Kathleen’s sisters, Candace Zamperini, approached the building with a camera crew recording her every step. She turned around, adjusted her hair, and resumed the same strut, this time making sure the camera caught the right angle. Zamperini soon entered the courtroom with other key players of the prosecutorial team, including Lori Campbell (Kathleen’s other sister), Art Holland (the lead investigator of the Durham police), and Jim Dornfried (the new Assistant District Attorney). While they settled into their seats, two assistant defense lawyers joined Peterson and Rudolf. They huddled around the defense table and whispered to one another until a court officer interrupted them:
The Honorable Orlando F. Hudson, Jr. took his place. Hudson had also presided over the 2003 court case that found Peterson guilty of murdering Kathleen.
After a clerk swore in Peterson, Hudson questioned him, ensuring Peterson understood and willingly accepted the Alford plea deal that he had worked out with the prosecution. An Alford plea allows its defendant to maintain his or her innocence while conceding that the prosecution would have enough evidence to convict in a trial. In this bargain, Peterson would plead guilty to voluntary manslaughter and serve sixty-four to eighty-six months in prison. The deal also accepted as credit the time that Peterson had already served in prison—eighty-nine months. Since he already served his time, he would be able to go home. Peterson stated that he understood and accepted the plea, though he would not personally admit his guilt.
“Mr. Peterson is not guilty, never was guilty, and he is not admitting his guilt,” Rudolf argued to the court. He continued that Peterson “did not get a fair trial” due to the misconduct of local police and State Bureau of Investigation agents, and he accepted the plea because he was “simply not willing to play again at what he perceives to be an unfair or crooked table.” Rudolf cautiously clarified that Hudson’s ruling was just, but he insisted that Peterson had “no faith in Durham law enforcement.”
After Rudolf’s statement, Hudson allowed both Campbell and Zamperini to make statements to Peterson on behalf of their deceased sister. Although the defense insisted on Peterson’s innocence despite this deal, Campbell expressed her pleasure at what she felt was the defense’s finally acknowledging Peterson’s wrongdoing. After all, a jury trial had already convicted him to life in prison. She closed her statement, holding back her tears: “Closure is for a door, not for my murdered sister.”
Zamperini followed her sister’s statement with a scathing rebuke of Peterson as well as the press and Rudolf for their sympathetic portrayals of her brother-in-law. “I didn’t want to believe it,” Zamperini said about Peterson’s murdering her sister; she did believe it, however, “only after seeing the crime scene photos and when the horror of her beating was showed.”
Zamperini then shifted attention to the French film company that covered Peterson’s defense throughout the trial. She called his film series, The Staircase (directed by Oscar-winning filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade), the “ultimate vanity project.” The series, she argued, inflated Peterson’s ego and threatened her and her niece Caitlin. Zamperini cited two separate episodes that made them fear for their safety, apologizing in advance for her swearing. In one episode, Peterson said to Margaret and Martha, “if not for Candace and Caitlin, I wouldn’t be here,” and in another episode, he spoke to Rudolf: “Candace can’t keep her fucking mouth shut. I don’t think I’d be here if she kept her mouth shut.” Zamperini, in response, held firm: “We did nothing to hurt you.” After Zamperini quoted Peterson’s harsh words, one of the assistant defense lawyers patted Peterson consolingly on his shoulder.
Both Peterson and Rudolf remained stoic and motionless throughout Zamperini’s statement. Rudolf would later chuckle and joke to me, “Wasn’t I nice and calm?” Zamperini, on the other hand, could not contain her anger. The paper shook in her hands. She then turned to face Rudolf: “You went out of your way to never say my sister’s name. In your opening arguments, you called her Katherine, not Kathleen. That’s how little you cared that my sister was beaten to death.” Rudolf never publicly responded to Zamperini’s statement about him. Three months later, he would shrug his shoulders and share with me his indifference: “I don’t know what she thinks I did that was so despicable to her. To be honest, I have never had a victim’s family member come at me in that personal, hostile way. I’m just doing my job.”
Zamperini paused, took a long swig of water, then continued her statement: “I was and I still am astonished and bewildered that Michael Peterson and David Rudolf spent so much time, thought, energy, even on camera, to focus on me. I did not witness this murder. I do not live in North Carolina.” While Peterson and Rudolf did exchange words on The Staircase about Zamperini, and while part of their defense was to undermine her testimony in court, neither of the two men would say they focused only on Zamperini. Perhaps the notoriety of this case, the constant press coverage, made Zamperini feel as if she were under pressure. Rudolf offered me a curt explanation: “She’s an angry person, but I understand her hurt.”
Zamperini turned her final anger and hurt on Peterson alone. “The words ‘Alford plea,’ they’re meaningless. Alford, schmalford. It means nothing. Guilt.” After a total of fifteen minutes, she finished her statement: “Michael Peterson, not only will you wear the scarlet letter ‘A’ for adulterer, but you will also wear the black letter ‘G’ for guilt. Not perfect justice, but justice.”
After Zamperini returned to her seat, Hudson ordered Peterson to stand. The court accepted his Alford plea. Hudson returned Peterson’s passport to him and said he was free to leave. The court officials exited, and after a few minutes, the cameramen repositioned themselves closer to Peterson. Though he declined to speak on court record, he planned to make a statement to the press.
As if the courtroom were his classroom, Peterson lectured the press on the downfalls of the judicial system: “Accepting this Alford plea has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done—ever.” He took a pause, then continued his statement: “Well, why accept the Alford plea? Because the second most difficult thing I ever did in my life was to sit through that trial. I listened to lies, perjury, fake evidence, made up evidence, withheld evidence.” He added, “So many times I wanted to jump up and scream, ‘Liar! This is not right!’ But you don’t do that in court.”
Peterson also made a final statement addressing Campbell and Zamperini: “I didn’t hurt Kathleen. I didn’t kill her. It just didn’t happen. I’m sorry you think that. If it will make you feel better, if you can somehow get over your pain and grief a little bit, okay. But it’s one of those things that when you commit yourself to a belief, it’s almost impossible to go back and say, ‘Oh, I’ve made a mistake.’” After this remark, Rudolf thanked the reporters and ushered Peterson back to their table. The crowd moved out into the hallway while Peterson collected his things and thanked his defense team.
In the narrow corridor outside of Durham County Courtroom 4D, a flock of journalists, cameramen, students, and family members waited for Michael Peterson. Julia Sims, a hyperactive reporter for WRAL who had followed this trial for the past fifteen years, adjusted her bright red sweater and fluffed her hair. She strategized with her two cameramen—one went down the main hallway and the other snuck down the back stairwell to make sure they captured Peterson’s exit. Other channels joined them, and soon masses of cameras blocked any clear exit. Zamperini and Art Holland emerged from the courtroom first, and Zamperini made a beeline for the cameras. Wagging her finger at the lenses, she scoffed, “How dare you!” at critical questions about her statement to the court. As she stormed off, her voice echoed from down the back stairwell: “He’s guilty! GUIL-TY!”
Art Holland watched her push past the cameras. He straightened his tie, turned around the other way, and headed down the main hallway. As the lead detective who first suspected Peterson in the murder of his wife, Holland always wanted Peterson to admit his guilt. This Alford plea was as good as he would ever get. He smiled and indulged in a self-congratulatory whisper, “Alright!” as he passed by.
On one side of the hallway, a group of Pre-Law undergraduate students at Duke huddled around their professor. “So who would take the plea?” she asked them. Four students shot up their hands with conviction—the two others hesitated. Before they could elaborate on their positions, the courtroom door swung open. Peterson emerged, escorted by a security officer. And thus ended his fifteen-year-long legal battle. He donned a pair of dark sunglasses as he breezed past the crowd—a smile on his face.
Sunday, December 9, 2001
Tucked away behind rows of tall evergreens stood the Peterson mansion, just outside of Durham. Built with five chimneys and an outdoor pool, 1810 Cedar Street appeared like four reasonably sized houses bunched together as an irregular Tetris piece. At nightfall, temperatures lingered in the low forties as cool breezes rushed through the 9,200-square-foot property. Even in the middle of winter, the Petersons kept their pool filled and its center fountain running.
The Petersons had already put out their Christmas decorations. Poinsettias populated the entrance hall of the Forest Hills mansion, and nutcrackers stood guard on the grand staircase. Ranging in size from one to four feet tall, these painted figurines perched on every step, facing the bottom of the wooden staircase. The gradual, elegant bend of the stairs and the delicate carving of the white banister added to the splendor of the entry.
Farther down the main hallway, on the right, stood another set of stairs. After three steep steps, this staircase abruptly cut to the right. A slim wooden beam served as the banister up and down the dimly lit stairwell. Framed on the wall at the bottom of the staircase hung a poster of the Chat Noir—a sinister black cat. No nutcrackers peered down these stairs—instead, a scene more horrific and gruesome gathered at the bottom.
At 2:40 a.m., Durham Emergency Communications Department received a call from the Peterson mansion:
9-1-1 Operator: Durham 9-1-1. Where is your emergency?
Michael Peterson: 1810 Cedar Street. Please!
9-1-1: What’s wrong?
Peterson: My wife had an accident. She’s still breathing!
9-1-1: What kind of accident?
Peterson: She fell down the stairs. She’s still breathing! Please come!
9-1-1: Is she conscious?
9-1-1: Is she conscious?
Peterson: No, she’s not conscious. Please!
When the police arrived, they found Kathleen Peterson on her back at the bottom of the staircase with her gray sweatshirt and white sweatpants drenched in blood. Balled-up paper towels were scattered over her body, trying but ultimately failing to soak up the blood. Her legs splayed open in a straight “V,” and her toes—covered in blood—pointed outward. Resting in her lap, Kathleen’s hands, bent like candy canes, showed signs of rigor mortis. Kathleen’s neck contorted and extended up to the second step, where her head lay under a blood-soaked towel, facing the ceiling. Colorless and rigid, her face was seemingly frozen in a painful exhale: her eyes were closed and her mouth was wide open.
Blood pooled on the second stair beneath her head and splattered up along the base of the wall. The amount and pattern of Kathleen’s blood initially sparked detectives’ suspicion. Art Holland recalled his initial hunch in an interview for Lestrade’s documentary: “There was just a very abundant amount of blood on her, on the floor, on the walls. That just was not consistent with someone falling down the stairs.” The detectives also noted the towels around Kathleen’s body and questioned if either Peterson, or his son Todd, tried to clean up the scene to actively hide evidence. Todd was the first of Peterson’s children to arrive on the scene, to find his mother dead and his father hysterical. Detectives also found bloody footprints running from the hallway, through the kitchen, into the laundry room, and back to the kitchen. Forensic specialists also collected Peterson’s khaki shorts and analyzed eight drops of Kathleen’s blood on the inside of the right leg.
In an interview with Lestrade, Peterson shared what he remembers from that night: “I can vividly remember finding Kathleen . . .. I particularly remember Todd just holding me as tight as possible I think in order to contain me.” He also described the moment when he realized that he was the primary suspect: “Then I can remember, and it must have been very early while I was in the kitchen that a cop was on me, instantly. Everywhere I went, a policeman was there.” Barry Winston, a lawyer out of Chapel Hill, served as Peterson’s initial counsel. He advised Peterson not to cooperate with the police and answer their questions since they had already framed him as the main suspect. About a week after Kathleen’s death, Peterson decided to switch attorneys. Winston told Herald Sun reporter John Stevenson that the switch “can’t be explained by anything I am permitted to say.” Peterson wanted David Rudolf—renowned as one of the best defense lawyers in North Carolina—to represent him.
Rudolf had relevant experience, with several high-profile cases under his belt. In the first obscenity case brought to federal court in North Carolina, he defended adult mail-order company Adam & Eve. Rudolf convinced the jury to acquit the company and its CEO, Phil Harvey. In the Little Rascals Daycare child-molestation case, Rudolf represented owner Robert F. Kelly Jr., who faced one hundred charges of sexually abusing twelve children. Originally, Kelly received twelve consecutive life terms in prison; in 1995, however, the state Court of Appeals overturned his sentence. Right before Kathleen’s death in 2001, Rudolf defended Rae Carruth, former NFL player for the Carolina Panthers, who was on trial for the 1999 drive-by shooting of his ex-girlfriend. She was seven months pregnant with his child. Despite Rudolf’s best efforts, the jury found Carruth guilty of conspiring to commit murder, shooting into an occupied vehicle, and using a gun to attempt to kill an unborn child. He has spent over sixteen years in prison.
While some of Rudolf’s opponents may question how Rudolf sleeps at night, his coworkers and clients admire his ambition and intelligence. In the Herald Sun, fellow lawyer Thomas Loflin expressed his respect for Rudolf and cautioned any prosecutors: ‘If you’re going to go up against David Rudolf, you better have more than speculation. You better have some strong evidence. Otherwise, David Rudolf will rip you apart.” As I approached my interview, I grew nervous that he might, in fact, rip me apart.
A giant, panoramic drawing of a court room hangs above the conference room table in the Rudolf Widenhouse Law Firm. On the right side of the scene sits Judge Charles Lamm; the left shows a crowded pack of reporters, cameramen, and spectators. The frame light draws the viewer’s gaze to the figure in the spotlight of the courtroom: David Rudolf. Poised in front of the jury, with his eyebrows furrowed in sincerity, he points to his client, Rae Carruth. With the overhead lighting in an otherwise dimly lit room, Rudolf seems an idol—a paragon of legal integrity and passion.
In person, Rudolf has aged considerably since his days spent defending Carruth and Peterson, his jet black hair now peppered with gray. He is shorter and slimmer than he looked on camera. His wrinkled face glowed with the bronze of a tan. I sat across from him and adjusted my somewhat uncomfortable pencil skirt, while he lounged in his jeans. He began by elaborating on how he came to represent Peterson. Bill Peterson, Michael’s brother and a lawyer in Reno, got Rudolf’s number from a coworker. Unknown to Bill, Rudolf had already met both Michael and Kathleen five years earlier. In 1994, Clayton Peterson had been arrested for manufacturing and planting a homemade pipe bomb in the main administrative building on Duke’s campus. Clayton faced federal charges, and so the Petersons, in search of a lawyer, spoke with Rudolf. “I actually didn’t much care for them, and they didn’t hire me.” When I asked why he was not fond of the Petersons at first, Rudolf did not wish to elaborate. Perhaps the Peterson’s notoriety in the Durham area piqued Rudolf’s interest in the new murder.
On December 20, 2001, Holland indicted Peterson for the murder of Kathleen, and that same day Peterson turned himself in. Within the next few weeks, district attorney and lead prosecutor Jim Hardin gathered the prosecution team together to review the evidence. They soon found not only that, at the time of Kathleen’s death, the Petersons faced financial issues (around $143,000 in credit card debt), but also that Michael was seeking an extramarital affair with another man. In the eyes of the defense, both Peterson’s money problems and bisexuality began to form a plausible motive for murder.
Rudolf and his defense team would eventually reject these claims. In late December, however, they prioritized their first, big challenge: getting Peterson out of jail on bond. “That was important,” Rudolf told me, “because when somebody is appearing in orange jumpsuit in the media, that’s not a good image to have.” Judge Holland ordered Peterson to stay in jail until the prosecution decided whether or not it would pursue the death penalty. Peterson could not post bond and simply had to wait, spending Christmas away from his family.
Tuesday, December 25, 2001
Christmas in Jail
The Durham County Jail did not allow for prisoners to see visitors over Christmas; the visitation rooms would grow too crowded. Instead of the company of his family, Peterson enjoyed basic human hygiene products, donated by the Salvation Army. Meanwhile, Peterson’s biological and adopted children pleaded to be reunited with their father. Caitlin Atwater made a public statement, arguing that Michael and Kathleen were in the “most amazing, loving relationship ever.” Caitlin also posited that Kathleen would be “absolutely appalled” to know that Michael was spending the holidays away from his family. Todd Peterson agreed: “This is the most unbelievably heartbreaking Christmas you could imagine. It is beyond belief.”
As Peterson sat in jail, some of his past indiscretions began to surface. In 1999, Peterson ran for mayor on a populist platform, and although he lost in the primary, he gathered significant attention and followers. Peterson announced his campaign in his opinion column, Hizzoner: “I want to be mayor of this city, and expose problems. I want to correct them.” During his campaign, journalists exposed bits of Peterson’s shady past. They uncovered a DWI charge from 1993, which was later reduced to reckless driving. Peterson also had to admit the truth about his two Purple Hearts. He had told people that, while in Vietnam, some shrapnel caused his injury and subsequent honorable discharge. Instead, he had gotten into a vehicle accident in Japan, where he was stationed after the war as a policeman. When he returned home from Vietnam and Japan, Peterson published three relatively popular wartime novels and used the proceeds to purchase the Forest Hills mansion.
While in jail, Peterson began writing in a “Jail Journal.” In this journal, Peterson notes the demographics of his cell: sixteen black men, six white men, and two Hispanic men. In a Herald Sun column, Tom Gasparoli cites one of the passages Peterson wrote on Christmas night: “I will not write about myself, certainly not about my plight, for it is shallow in the oceanic depths of sorrow here and elsewhere, but I will tell you about others – not their cases, just about them.” A month later, Gasparoli could not resist writing another column on Peterson, a trend that eventually solicited criticism from other journalists. In his article “Justice should dominate,” Gasparoli cautions against partiality of news coverage in this case: “He [Peterson] will get unusual treatment; it could work for or against him. Money, fame, and media attention bring a special brand of justice.” Gasparoli continued, “Just because Mike Peterson has been a very active citizen does not mean he deserves less suspicion,” and concluded with an ethical plea to reporters, “Just follow the evidence where it leads.” But not all journalists appreciated his righteous indignation. In a response, Don Clement, a close friend of both Michael and Kathleen, scolds Gasparoli, “Gasparoli’s glaring omission is his failure to account for the principle of presumed innocence.” Clement also shared that he knew Michael and Kathleen to be a loving, supportive couple.
After Peterson spent a month in prison, the prosecution agreed that they would not be seeking the death penalty. On January 14, 2002, the court released Peterson under an $850,000 secured bond. In his first public statement since his arrest, Peterson grieved his wife: “I whispered her name in my heart a thousand times. She is there, but I can’t stop crying.” Sure enough, Kathleen’s tombstone would eventually bear a similar message, surrounded by etched roses: “Just whisper my name in your heart. I’ll be there.” Peterson also shared his determination: “I am innocent of these charges, and we will prove it in court.” Rudolf’s team was already hard at work.
As they prepared their defense, the team received inquires from Dateline and other television productions. Rudolf did not typically let his clients participate in such programs before their trial; when Court TV reached out this time, however, they had a special offer. Frenchmen Denis Poncet and Jean-Xavier de Lestrade run Maha Productions as producer and director, respectively. In 2002, they won an Oscar for best documentary feature film for “Murder on a Sunday Morning.” Lestrade wanted to make a full documentary on Peterson’s trial and film everything. “Michael really wanted them to do it,” Rudolf shared with me. “He was convinced he was going to get home-cooked in Durham and that having an outside film documentary would somehow even the playing field.” Rudolf found such thinking fanciful. When approached by Rudolf, Peterson, and Lestrade, Judge Hudson eventually agreed for the team to film the trial, for Hudson told the Herald Sun the documentary could have educational value. Rudolf saw a similar, educational opportunity: “Defense attorneys had been negatively portrayed in the media as sleazy lawyers who cut corners, lie, and suborn perjury. People had never seen how a defense is put together so I thought it would be educational for people to see how a lawyer goes about defending criminal case in an ethical way.” Lestrade began filming all parts of the trial.
Rudolf does not believe that he would have agreed to work with Lestrade had Peterson not been so interested. “I was not a fan of cameras in the courtroom,” he clarifies, “I’m still not a fan of cameras in the courtroom.” When I asked him if the constant presence of cameras affected his work or team, Rudolf responded: “I got used to it, but it wasn’t ideal.” His work was just beginning.
The second, big challenge facing Rudolf’s team festered across the Atlantic Ocean. The prosecution team discovered that, sixteen years earlier Elizabeth Ratliff, Peterson’s neighbor and Margaret and Martha’s biological mother, died at the bottom of a staircase in Germany. At the time of her death, the autopsy concluded that she died from an intra-cerebral hemorrhage caused by Von Willebrand’s disease. Ratliff had suffered severe, persistent headaches in the weeks leading up to her death. The hemorrhage caused her to fall down the stairs, where her maid found her in the morning. Peterson, apparently, was the last person to see Ratliff alive. “So we went to Germany,” Rudolf told me, “and we went to the actual house where . . .” he forgot Elizabeth Ratliff’s name, “that woman had died.”
To this day, Rudolf is surprised that Judge Hudson allowed for Ratliff’s death as evidence in Peterson’s trial: “Most lawyers agree with me—I think it was very prejudicial and not very probative since there was no evidence that Michael had anything to do with that woman’s death.” After the coroner had Ratliff’s body exhumed and performed another autopsy, she ruled her death as a homicide. Rudolf slammed his hands on the conference table and became enraged thinking about it: “That became proof that he had murdered Kathleen, and Kathleen’s death was proof that he had murdered Elizabeth Ratliff. It was a complete circular argument; it just should have never come in.”
A month after his release on bond, Peterson shared with the Herald Sun that he still visited the inmates he met in jail and talked to them on the telephone. “I still find it therapeutic,” he said. “I found out I really like some of those guys.” Michael soon claimed the role as advocate for these incarcerated, mainly black men. He most clearly demonstrated this activism in another Herald Sun interview. “What does it say about a city when its largest building is a jail and ninety percent of its population is black?” he asked. “Is there is no concern about what happens to these people? I think someone should be screaming about it.” In April, Michael Peterson joined a public panel to discuss racial inequality in incarceration. Many journalists defended Peterson’s activism, arguing that he has always been a longtime advocate of racial justice. No amount of support in the Herald Sun, however, could keep Tom Gasparoli’s criticism at bay.
In an editorial, Gaparoli used sarcasm to criticize Peterson for not holding a public forum to find his wife’s real murderer: “I’m so proud of him . . . even though he’s telling blacks something they already know, already live and already fight, imagine the strength it takes for Peterson to unburden himself from his grief and determination to discover who may have fatally beaten his spouse. Thank you, Mr. Peterson. What else can we say?” He concludes his scathing response by listing other causes worthy of Peterson’s advocacy on his many television appearances, including alcoholism, dog fighting, and—perhaps too on the nose—violence against women.
For many of his peers, Gasparoli’s piece crossed ethical lines. A regular Gasparoli critic, Don Clement, wrote in the Herald that his piece “was so self-righteous, sarcastic and illogical.” Clement believed, furthermore, that Gasparoli lacked journalistic objectivity.
Perhaps part of Gasparoli’s frustration with Peterson was that he had yet to secure an interview with him. He wrote in February, “Peterson is being relatively open only with certain reporters, and I am not one of them.” Gasparoli clarified to his readers that he attempted to interview Peterson; Rudolf, however, did not make Peterson available to the reporter. “I have met with Rudolf,” he added. “It appears we respect each other.” Gasparoli made clear that he wanted to meet with Peterson to “shape the complete portrait of Michael Peterson.”
When I asked Rudolf what he thought of Gasparoli, he laughed. “Tom Gasparoli is an asshole.” He told me, “He didn’t much care for me, and I didn’t much care for him.”
January 2002—July 2003
A Family Divided
While journalists debated Peterson’s activism, the coroner had the autopsy photographs, and the DA’s office had Zamperini and Caitlin. State pathologist Dr. Deborah L. Radisch performed the autopsy on Kathleen’s body and concluded that the cause of death was the seven lacerations on her posterior scalp, which she wrote were “inconsistent with a fall down stairs” and “indicative of multiple impacts received as a result of beating.” One laceration stretched from the top of her head to the base of her skull. Radisch measured this tri-pronged gash—the largest of her head wounds—as three inches long and one inch wide. Two thinner lacerations branched off to the right, pointing to two other lacerations that looked like pitchforks. Radisch also reported a large contusion on Kathleen’s left shoulder blade as well as on both elbows and hands. These bruises, she noted, most likely came from a beating. She did not, however, discover any skull or cervical spine fractures. Rudolf and his team argued that, had Kathleen actually been beaten to death, her skull would most likely have been fractured. After all, they contested, it would have been hard for any perpetrator to control his or her deadly motions so carefully so as not to break through to the skull at least once. Despite the defense’s opposing theory, Zamperini and Caitlin had already seen the gruesome autopsy photos, showing Kathleen’s shaved and bloody head lying on a cold slab in the mortuary. As Zamperini said, “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Convinced by these photos, Peterson’s adopted daughter and his sister-in-law began to doubt his innocence, and they strove to find justice for Kathleen. Ironically, both women then portrayed themselves as the victim to the press. From her dorm room at Cornell, Caitlin crafted her first written statement and shared it with Tom Gasparoli. She wrote, “Mom won’t come to my graduation, nor will she know what law school I attend; she will never see me in my wedding gown, nor celebrate holidays with my children.” Perhaps oversharing, Caitlin also concluded that her mother would have been proud of her: “I can console myself knowing Mom already knew I was prepared for great things.” Caitlin believed the best way to honor her mother was to take even more legal action against her stepfather.
In October, Caitlin sued Peterson for Kathleen’s wrongful death, arguing, in a public statement, that he “did intentionally, maliciously, willfully, and wantonly assault” Kathleen. She claimed that she did not want her father to benefit financially from Kathleen’s death. Her step-siblings disagreed with and criticized Caitlin’s precipitous actions. Todd Peterson told the Herald that Caitlin “has been poisoned . . . by a one-sided presentation of selective facts by police prosecutors.” He continued, “If she was interested in the truth, she would have waited until all the facts come out at trial before making her mind up about what happened to our mother.” Todd’s biological mother and Peterson’s first wife, Patty, also believed in Michael’s innocence and supported him throughout the process. Rudolf would later laugh, “He didn’t beat his first wife to death—he divorced her—and she is a tough woman to get along with.” Patty’s other son, Clayton, as well as Margaret and Martha, consistently maintain their father’s innocence, even still to this day. In 2007, Caitlin and Peterson eventually reached a twenty-five-million-dollar settlement, which was payable only if his conviction stood.
While Caitlin filed the lawsuit, Zamperini argued for the admissibility of the autopsy photos. She stated, “As much as I don’t want to see her head on the Internet, I will suffer that a million times to get justice.” Seeing just how persuasive these photos could be, Rudolf fought in court to keep the autopsy photos out of the jury’s hands and the public domain. Ultimately, Judge Hudson ruled that the photos were admissible, and soon the court made them public. The photos of Kathleen’s scalp were not the only sensational photos circulating at the time.
On a “20/20” episode, ABC profiled Dr. Henry Lee, whom Rudolf had recruited for the defense due to his expertise in forensic science and crime scene blood. In his book, Cracking Cases, Lee discussed five of the prominent cases that had worked on. In four of those cases, Lee worked with the prosecution trying husbands for killing their wives. Lee worked on the defense team, however, for the fifth case: the trial of celebrity defendant O. J. Simpson. For the “20/20” episode, Lee shared his thoughts on the blood spatter in Kathleen’s case and showed videos and photos of that grisly crime scene on national television. They did not feature Kathleen’s body; they nonetheless shocked many viewers. Zamperini slammed Rudolf for hypocrisy and disrespect: with the autopsy photos, Rudolf wanted to respect Kathleen’s and her family’s privacy, but with the bloody staircase, Rudolf was only thinking of his client.
In preparation for the Peterson trial, the Durham County Court House installed a media box in between Judge Hudson’s stand and the jury box. The goal of this structure was to keep the cameramen from distracting the jury without obstructing their view. Rudolf explained the importance of such a precaution: “The real problem was that you had so many cameras in the courtroom that it just became a show. I don’t think I did much playing to the cameras. I don’t think I was playing any more to the cameras than I was to the jury, but the witnesses, juries, and judges get affected.” The media box looked like a makeshift theater for hand-puppets. Its light wood did not blend in with the older, darker wooden panels of the courtroom. Despite its lack of aesthetic appeal, the box worked effectively to control at least some of the media’s influence in the courtroom.
On the night before the trial began, Rudolf practiced his opening statements and ran through his slideshow in the courtroom all while being filmed. Pacing around in his gray t-shirt and jeans, Rudolf grew irritated when the slides appeared in the wrong order, and his assistant could not easily adjust them. Lestrade’s cameramen also caught every awkward moment of interruption, from people entering and exiting the room and his assistant’s phone buzzing. Flailing his arms around, Rudolf began to yell: “This system sucks! I did it with a presentation group and had none of these problems. None! And I am fucking pissed because it’s 7:20 the night before my opening and you’re fucking around with this. I don’t give a shit if we’re here all fucking night.”
Back at Cedar Street, Peterson seemed, by contrast, exceedingly calm. He finished smoking his pipe outside and made his way into the library. “This case is no more and no longer about Kathleen,” Peterson said to Lestrade’s crew as he reclined in a leather armchair, “This has become a show.” He believed that both Hardin and Rudolf wanted to win, no matter what. The truth, in Michael’s eyes, no longer seemed relevant to anyone but him: “I’m still very concerned with the reality of what happened that night.”
Tuesday, July 1, 2003
David Rudolf parked his Lexus in the courthouse’s underground garage and met Peterson and his family. “Be nice; be calm,” he advised them. As they walked outside, he wrapped his arm around Peterson and gave him a comforting squeeze. They marched to the courthouse as a pack and encountered the herds of cameras that were waiting outside. Making their way into the building, the team slid into the elevator. Rudolf joked with the cameramen about racing them up the stairs.
Once they settled in the courtroom and Judge Hudson took the stand, Hardin began his opening statement. He argued that while the core issues of the trial were simple, everything else was not. He urged the jury to look at the facts and the testimonies of their experts. His evidence would prove that Michael Peterson beat his wife over the head multiple times. To start his statement, David Rudolf showed the jury photos of their family, all seven of them together in the backyard of the Cedar Street mansion. He showed pictures of Michael and Kathleen, portraying them as a loving couple who had just finished watching American Sweethearts and drinking some wine. After taking some Valium combined with the alcohol, Kathleen attempted to walk up the dimly-lit, narrow staircase and fell.
The prosecution presented two potential motives that drove Peterson to murder his wife: financial issues and his bisexual desire. The defense had alternative explanations for both. Hardin argued that the Petersons owed $143,000 in credit card debt, and that Kathleen had $1.4 million life insurance policy through her job at Nortel. Nortel was undergoing major layoffs, and Kathleen was in danger of losing her $145,000 a year job and her benefits. Rudolf, on the other hand, pointed out that Peterson had $804,000 worth of equity in the Cedar Street residence and $261,000 worth of equity in another home that he owned. Including that $1 million equity, bank accounts, Nortel benefits and other assets—even after subtracting the $143,000 of debt—the Petersons still had a net worth of $2.13 million.
From Peterson’s computer, detectives had retrieved gay pornography and twenty emails exchanged between him and male escort Brent Wolgamott, or “Brad.” Brad looked like a military man himself, broad and muscular with a shaved head. The prosecution suggested that Kathleen had discovered the email correspondences between Michael and Brad, and Michael murdered her to keep his bisexuality a secret. The defense tried to persuade Judge Hudson to throw out this evidence as a whole. In a court statement, Rudolf and his team argued that in previous cases, the “evidence of a defendant’s sexual orientation or activity is not admissible unless there is a direct and demonstrable link between that orientation or activity and the crime with which the defendant is charged.” To Rudolf, that demonstrable link was not present. Despite Rudolf’s efforts, Judge Hudson eventually allowed the emails in as evidence. During the trial, Rudolf read aloud to the court an email that Peterson sent on September 2, 2001: “Evenings are not great for me anyway; I’m married, very happily married with a dynamite wife. Yes, I know, I know; I’m very bi(sexual) and that’s all there is to it.” Rudolf argued that he still loved Kathleen even though he was bisexual.
The defense argued that there was no murder weapon collected at the scene to account for the marks on Kathleen’s head. Jim Hardin passed around an iron fireplace blow poke, suggesting that a similar object could have been used to beat Kathleen. Rudolf scoffed at Hardin’s hypothesis. He was nervous, however, that the image of this blow poke stuck in the minds of the jury although it was never proven to be the murder weapon.
Finally, the defense relied heavily on the testimonies of Dr. Radisch, whose autopsy ruled Kathleen’s death a homicide, and SBI agent Duane Deaver, whose blood splatter analysis reached the same conclusion. Perched on the witness stand, Deaver pointed to the photos of the bloody staircase. He testified that Kathleen’s cause of death was without a doubt murder. “And if you believe otherwise,” ADA Freda Black added at the end of questioning, “well, you’re just gonna have to believe that Duane Deaver is a liar.” Attempting to support the defense, Dr. Lee took a more active role in the courtroom. Lee walked down from the stand, filled his mouth with ketchup, and sprayed it back onto white poster board. The blood on the stairwell, he argued, came from Kathleen’s mouth, sprayed by her own coughing.
Despite the time passed since the Peterson trial, Rudolf maintains his client’s innocence. In fact, Rudolf, never doubted Peterson, and he can’t say that about every case he has handled. “There were a lot of cases where I think there’s reasonable doubt, and so I think there should be a not-guilty verdict,” Rudolf told me. “But this is one where I was convinced that he was innocent.”
Friday, October 10, 2003
Four days after the jury began their deliberation and eleven days before they delivered their verdict, Sonya Pfeiffer of WTVD sent a letter to each juror, inviting them to lunch at the news station to discuss their final decisions. While only one juror read the letter, Judge Hudson had to ensure that the material was not prejudicial and that the juror did not feel compelled in any way. Pfeiffer’s team said that the letters were a mistake, that they were not meant to go out before the final verdict. That same day after lunch, another WTVD reporter had replaced Pfeiffer in the media box. Everyone in the courtroom anxiously awaited the return of Judge Hudson and the jury.
Confident in his defense strategy, Rudolf found the final verdict that much more shocking. “Most of the reporters who sat through the trial thought that he was going to be not guilty.” As the court clerk read off the jury’s unanimous verdict, guilty of first degree murder, Martha and Margaret began to weep. Before the court officers ushered Peterson to sentencing, he turned around to his children. “It’s okay,” he repeated three times to them, and Martha tried to stifle her tears. They watched as the officers handcuffed their father and escorted him out of the room. While Jim Hardin and Freda Black embraced in celebration, Rudolf packed up his materials, shaking his head in disbelief.
Had he the chance to go back and redo the trial, Rudolf would have changed his strategy. “I probably would have tried to humanize him a little more than I did,” he said. “I’d put his daughters on the stand and let them talk about their relationship and what they saw.” He had focused on the reasonable doubt, but has since learned that he may have relied too heavily on that strategy: “I think my opening and closing arguments would be different now than they were. They would tell a story more than just going through the list of reasonable doubts.”
After Peterson had served eight years in prison, the court finally granted him a new trial, and Peterson returned home on bond and with a tracking anklet. Judge Hudson found that in the original trial, Duane Deaver’s testimony about the blood spatter was “materially misleading” and “deliberately false.” Deaver had also exaggerated his qualifications. With a new trial date scheduled for May 8, 2017, Peterson had the chance to clear his name and his guilt. “Well, given the fact that I thought we won the first trial, I hesitate to make predictions,” Rudolf told me, “but I think he would have been found not guilty.” He then qualified his prediction: “I don’t think the Germany stuff would have come in at the second trial; I don’t think the gay sex stuff would have come in at the second trial. They had no murder weapon or theory of a murder weapon, nor did they really have a motive.” This optimism, however, had limits, as Rudolf explained that the prosecution still had the blood splatter: “a visceral thing for the jury.” Rudolf was unsure if they could find a jury that would have been fair and impartial.
In part inspired by the Peterson trial, Rudolf now mainly focuses on civil rights litigation. He works with people who have been exonerated and sues police departments for having hidden exculpatory evidence or fabricated confessions or junk science. When discussing wrongful convictions, Rudolf said, “I think that’s the system giving up its dead in a sense: the system doesn’t work if someone gets wrongly convicted.” To Rudolf, the system fails more frequently than people want to believe.
Rudolf told me, however, that he might not be entirely ready to retire from criminal cases. “If a juicy criminal case comes along, I’ll do it, but it would have to be a really interesting case that caught my attention,” he said. Rudolf does not believe he needs to build his reputation anymore and would take a case only if he would “learn something from it” or make a “significant amount of money from it.” Later, he clarified to me, “Making money at this point in my life is not terribly important.”
One positive impact that the Peterson trial had on Rudolf’s life is that he met his future wife—ironically the reporter in the courtroom, Sonya Pfeiffer. After finishing law school in 2007, Pfeiffer joined Rudolf’s firm, Rudolf Widenhouse, and defends both state and federal criminal cases. Together, they have a daughter who is about to turn seven. When I asked Rudolf if he kept in touch with Peterson and his family, he smiled. “We do, and I am sure it will continue.”
Though a convicted felon, Peterson is technically a free man. With his unearthed secrets, his poor public image, and his wife still buried in the ground, Peterson will never truly be free. After his plea hearing and subsequent release, Michael Peterson said he plans on visiting his children out of state. He also shared, “I’ve got a lot to say about the judicial system, about guys in prison.” Perhaps his “Jail Journal” entries were simply the start; the country has not heard the last from Peterson.