CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) – Michael Peterson is out of theories as to how his wife died at the bottom of a staircase in the couple’s mansion in Durham, North Carolina, more than 15 years ago. Did Kathleen Peterson fall down those stairs? Did an intruder attack her?
“The only thing I know absolutely, positively, is that I had nothing to do with Kathleen’s death,” said the novelist, who served eight years of a life sentence for her death before being released by a judge. The judge said one of the prosecution’s main witnesses had conducted flawed tests and misled the jury.
Still Peterson, 73, plans to take what’s called an Alford plea to a manslaughter charge during a hearing Friday in Durham County Superior Court. Under the plea, Peterson can still say he’s innocent while agreeing the prosecution has enough evidence to convict him.
In an interview Thursday with The Associated Press at his attorney’s office, Peterson said he’s taking the plea because he has no faith in getting a fair shake at a second trial.
“That atmosphere, that culture of convicting someone, doing anything possible to convict someone is still there,” said Peterson, a Marine in the Vietnam War who later wrote “A Time of War” and “A Bitter Peace.”
Peterson’s trial in 2003 had all the makings of a made-for-TV movie – and one was filmed, along with a multi-part documentary – including his bisexuality; the death of a family friend whose body also was found at the bottom of a staircase years earlier in Germany; and the state blood spatter analyst whose discredited testimony in another case eventually led to the first release of a man under the state’s unique innocence commission.
Through all of it, Peterson’s two biological sons with his wife support him, as do the two sisters he raised and whose mother is the woman who died in Germany. But Kathleen’s family, including her daughter Caitlin Atwater and sister Candace Zamperini, do not.
Zamperini declined to comment to the AP, saying only that she will be at Friday’s hearing. An attorney for Atwater said he would get back, but didn’t respond to follow-up messages. In 2007, Atwater reached a $25 million wrongful death settlement with Peterson, payable if his conviction stood. Peterson acknowledged no guilt in the settlement.
Peterson said Thursday he was unclear of the effect of the Alford plea on the settlement.
After Michael Peterson was released in 2011, Zamperini – who testified for the prosecution at trial – told The News & Observer of Raleigh that she had agreed with the guilty verdict. And earlier this month, she said in a statement to media outlets that Michael Peterson has “professed his false innocence” for over 15 years.
District Attorney Roger Echols didn’t respond to a message seeking comment. Peterson’s attorney, David Rudolf, said prosecutors agreed to the Alford plea and Peterson will be sentenced to time already served.
Peterson has said he was innocent in his wife’s death since her body was found Dec. 9, 2001, at the bottom of the staircase in their 12,000-square-foot mansion. Rudolf reiterates that innocence in a court memo filed Wednesday: “He did not kill Kathleen Peterson. He did not attack Kathleen Peterson. He is not responsible for her death in any way.”
The prosecution won a first-degree murder conviction in 2003 without a murder weapon or a clear motive, although witnesses testified about financial problems and Peterson’s bisexuality. Defense attorney David Rudolf said jurors said they relied on the testimony of Duane Deaver of the State Bureau of Investigation, who was fired in 2011 after an independent audit found problems in 34 cases he was involved in.
In December 2011, Judge Orlando Hudson – who heard the original trial – ordered a new trial on the basis of Deaver’s testimony. Peterson was released from prison then and slowly gained more freedom.
Hudson declined in November 2016 to drop the charges against Peterson, whose attorneys argued the case couldn’t be tried because evidence hadn’t been stored correctly.
After that, his sons advised him to settle the case somehow because they believed he would never get a fair trial.
“Taking the Alford plea is the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life – ever,” Peterson said. And I’ve thought back on it – (is there) any other decision that remotely rivals it? No.”
He cannot trust the police or prosecutors again, he said, “because I don’t believe they would play fairly. They would do anything to convict me. And I am not going to put my life and my freedom in their hands.”
Peterson now lives in a 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom condo. It is more than enough, said Peterson, now a grandfather of two. He plans to visit family, spread across the country. But after that, he’s not sure about his plans, other than to write a book.
“For five years, I’ve lived with this over my head,” he said. “… But now, on Friday, I’ll be free. I haven’t really absorbed that yet.”