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Michael Peterson - The Staircase Murder April 24, 2005 8:15 AM

Case Chronology

Key DatesDec. 9, 2001
2:45 a.m.

Michael Peterson calls 911 and reports finding his 48-year-old wife, Kathleen, injured at the bottom of a flight of stairs inside their Durham, N.C., home. She is dead by the time emergency workers arrive at the scene.

Dec. 10, 2001

Durham police call Kathleen Peterson's death "suspicious." Authorities obtain a warrant to search the Peterson's home in the affluent neighborhood of Forest Hills.

Dec. 11-12, 2001

Investigators search the Peterson home and reportedly seize 66 items of evidence, including computers and data.

Dec. 17, 2001

While police continue their investigation, Michael Peterson hires David Rudolf a high-profile attorney whose clients include former Carolina Panther Rae Carruth to represent him.

Dec. 21, 2001

A judge denies bail for Peterson pending a decision by prosecutors on whether they will pursue the death penalty.

Jan. 14, 2002

Following a decision by prosecutors not to seek the death penalty, Michael Peterson is released from the Durham County Jail after posting $850,000 bond.

Oct. 20, 2002

Durham County District Attorney Jim Harding tells local media he wants to exhume the body of Elizabeth Ratliff, a friend of the Petersons whose 1985 death in Germany, prosecutors believe, bears similarities to the death of Kathleen Peterson. Michael Peterson reportedly walked Ratliff home after dinner the night of her death.

Oct. 29, 2002

Michael Peterson is sued by his wife's estate. The lawsuit, filed by Kathleen Peterson's daughter, Caitlin Atwater, alleges Michael Peterson was responsible for Kathleen Peterson's death.

April 14, 2003

Elizabeth Ratliff's body is exhumed in Texas and transported to North Carolina to undergo an autopsy.

April 28, 2003

An autopsy concludes Elizabeth Ratliff was the victim of homicide, not a stroke as German authorities concluded in 1985 as her cause of death.

May 5, 2003

Jury selection begins for Peterson's first-degree murder trial, which is expected to take at least eight weeks from opening statements to verdict.

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 April 24, 2005 8:16 AM

Wife's staircase death at center of novelist's murder trial


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 April 24, 2005 8:18 AM

Peterson show left out facts
Documentary cut out of necessity

They spent almost two years at Michael Peterson's side. Finally, the French film crew that followed the prosecution of the Durham novelist brought forth its documentary this week, and the consensus Friday of some participants was: The movie left a lot of stuff out.

"If you hadn't been at the trial," juror David Heggins said Friday, "you wouldn't have known what was going on."

Indeed, the documentary, "The Stair Case," which aired on ABC's "PrimeTime Thursday," by necessity trimmed many important details from the complex Dec. 9, 2001, murder of Peterson's wife, Kathleen.

Maha Productions, which produced the Oscar-winning documentary "Murder on a Sunday Afternoon," took more than 650 hours of videotape in the Peterson case. Last year, just before the jury returned a conviction, producer Denis Poncet said he expected to sell ABC a 12-hour miniseries.

Instead, the raw footage was reduced to two hours. Still, the movie narrowly won its time period over "CSI" on CBS on Thursday night, according to the A.C. Nielsen ratings service.

"The Stair Case" delivered its story from Peterson's point of view. Peterson, 61, was convicted Oct. 10 of bludgeoning his wife to death in the back staircase of their mansion in the Forest Hills section of Durham.

Peterson, a former mayoral candidate and the author of three novels, refused to speak with police. His attorneys argued that an inebriated Kathleen Peterson fell backward at least twice on the staircase and coughed up all the blood. The defense also said Durham police contaminated the crime scene.

In the movie, Peterson at first was supremely confident that he would win. But as time passed, he grew agitated and fearful, saying at one point that the stress had become so intense, "I'd take a lethal injection at this point."


What did not get addressed in "The Stair Case"

* The blood spatter on the inside of Michael Peterson's shorts leg.

* The bloody footprint on the back of Kathleen Peterson's sweat pants that matched Peterson's shoes found near her body.

* The forensic evidence in Kathleen Peterson's brain that showed her brain had been starved for oxygen for at least two hours by the time she died.

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 April 24, 2005 8:18 AM

Peterson is serving a life sentence at Nash County Correctional Center. Department of Correction spokesman Keith Acree said Friday that Peterson did not see the documentary.

One of Peterson's lawyers, Thomas Maher, said the movie did a good job given its time constraints.

"A lot of the important forensic evidence got boiled down to the point where a viewer not familiar with the case might not have understood that. There was nothing, for example, in there about how the scene was processed."

District Attorney Jim Hardin, who prosecuted Peterson, said he found Peterson "cavalier" in discussing such issues as whether he would testify. The movie showed a brief scene where Peterson simply told his lawyers he would not do it.

"We were ready for him," Hardin said. "And that would have been a very interesting exchange."

Most of the 12 jurors and four alternates who spent 15 weeks hearing the case could not be reached for comment or did not return repeated telephone calls. But juror Tonya Rogers, a Department of Correction employee, said Friday that Peterson's behavior in the movie was "weird."

"He's a legend in his own mind," she said. "He was very cocky."

Rogers said the movie gave her insight into how much time, effort and money went into the defense version of events: "It was amazing. They took a million dollars, and they covered up what was obvious."

Rogers said trial experience "was the hardest thing I've ever done outside labor."

Shirley Ferrell, an obstetrics nurse at Duke University Hospital, said that the movie reminded her of Michael Peterson's courtroom demeanor throughout the trial.

"He didn't react the way you would think someone would react," Ferrell said. "Lots of times, he seemed lighthearted, he was laughing. He didn't seem as serious most of the time than most people would be."

Heggins, a Navy retiree, said Friday he was mystified by the movie's focus on the discovery of a fireplace tool called a blow poke late in the trial in the Peterson garage. The prosecution contended the murder weapon either was a blow poke or something like it, and the blow poke had disappeared after Kathleen Peterson's death. Heggins said the jury was suspicious about the blow poke's sudden appearance.

"It was awful strange to us that five different detectives had gone through the basement looking for that exact thing and none of them found it, then two or three months later, it was propped up against the wall."

Heggins also noted that 18 years before Kathleen Peterson's murder, a female friend of Michael Peterson turned up dead in her apartment at the foot of a staircase.

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 April 24, 2005 8:19 AM

"It was just too much that one man would be the last person to see two women, and both of them end up dead at the bottom of a staircase," Heggins said. "The chances of that happening are three times more than the MegaLottery."

About two weeks after he finished his service in State v. Peterson, Heggins went out to his mailbox and found a fresh summons to jury duty.

"I went up there the next day [to the courthouse] and showed it to the clerk of the courts," he said. "She said, 'Oh, Mr. Heggins, I know somebody made a mistake.' "

The documentary followed a two-hour television story aired on NBC last winter. The Peterson cottage industry has not ceased production. Next month brings publication of the book "A Perfect Husband" by true-crime specialist Aphrodite Jones, and in February comes "Written in Blood" by Texas writer Diane Fanning.

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 April 24, 2005 8:22 AM


While I was watching this on Court TV last year..... I followed along with this site -- some interesting insights..

I have yet to watch the 12 hour mini-series, but understand that it really has a defense bias, and that is to be if YOU watch it....keep that in mind.

COURT TV had some great coverage.... Can't wait to read the books that are due out this year.....

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 April 24, 2005 2:33 PM

Has anyone seen the Sundance mini-series of this story... I have a friend copying it for me, since we don't get that channel.

I hear it is very biased on the Defense side -- but that is to be expected since the prosecution decided not to allow all the access that the film crew wanted.

I watched this case almost gavel to gavel on Court TV....

Amazing to watch the 'law at work'.....


who, during watching the trial, bought her husband a 'blowpoke'......had never heard of them before, but they are wonderful in keeping a fire going... Just warned hubby NEVER to use it on the staircase

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