Inside the 'Staircase' Murder Trial

Several weeks into the trial for the murder of his wife, novelist Michael Peterson was laughing.

His son had just found the missing fireplace poker that prosecutors argued he may have used to beat his wife to death, and it did not have any dents or visible signs that it had been used in a beating.

His defense team was in high spirits, believing the discovery supported Peterson's account that his wife fell down the stairs.

During a meeting, the lead defense lawyer, David Rudolf, joked that he was going to have Peterson take a plea bargain. Peterson — who had maintained his innocence throughout the case — responded with a laugh: "I'm ready to go. Life sentence — I can do it."

"Send me away. I could take a lethal injection at this point," he said.

What had brought Peterson to this point began on the morning of Dec. 9, 2001, when he placed a panicked call to 911 saying his wife of 14 years, Kathleen, had fallen down the stairs.

But when police arrived, the amount of blood on the walls made them suspicious. An autopsy said Kathleen died from a severe beating, suffering blood loss to her brain, and that she had lain injured for several hours before dying.

Rudolf, Peterson's lawyer, would later argue that the amount of blood caused authorities to jump to conclusions about Kathleen's death.

The Petersons were a prominent couple in Durham, N.C. Michael Peterson was a novelist, newspaper columnist and two-time political candidate. His wife was an executive at communications giant Nortel, and a popular hostess.

It would be a high-profile trial. Documentary filmmakers were given extraordinary behind-the-scenes access to all facets of the defense.

Disputing Evidence

After learning of their mother's death, initially all of Petersons' five children stood by their father.

That all changed when Kathleen's biological daughter Caitlin read the autopsy report. It made it clear to her that her stepfather Michael Peterson might have murdered her mother. She was even more convinced when police looked at the contents of Peterson's computer.

Authorities found gay pornography and what they said was evidence of an illicit relationship. "I realized there was definitely another side to him," Caitlin said after she learned of the discovery.

When the trial began, District Attorney Jim Hardin built his case in part on the theory that the Petersons had racked up a large amount of debt through expensive living, and that Michael killed his wife for a $1.8 million insurance settlement.

Hardin also argued that there was evidence that Kathleen discovered her husband was bisexual the night she was killed and that Michael Peterson attacked her after she confronted him with her discovery.

And the prosecutor had more — a coroner and forensic experts had concluded that the victim's injuries were the result of a beating, not an accident.

In his opening statement, he said the murder weapon might have been a missing blow poke — a hollow poker that can be blown through to fan a fire — or something like it. Kathleen had received the poker as a gift from her sister years earlier, but it had gone missing.

Peterson's lawyer, Rudolf, responded by saying that the bloody image of the victim shown to the jurors gave a misleading picture of what actually occured.

There were no skull fractures, no brain contusions, and no swelling of the brain, all typical in beatings. To make that point, he brought in one of the world's leading forensic experts, Henry Lee, who testified that the blood splatter evidence was far more consistent with an accidental fall than a beating.

The defense presented a very different version of what occurred that night. They argued that Kathleen Peterson had been drinking and tried to walk up a narrow, poorly lit stairway in flip-flops. "She fell, and she bled to death," Rudolf told the court.

He also repeated again and again that there was absolutely no evidence of a motive. To the contrary, all the evidence showed the Petersons were a happily married couple. "Everyone who really knew them knew that they loved each other," he said.

The trial progressed with competing experts. But it took a sordid turn when the prosecution called to the stand Brent Wolgamott, a 28-year-old male former escort whom Peterson had contacted online.

Wolgamott said they made plans to have sex for the first time on Sept. 5, 2001. But Wolgamott said the rendezvous never happened and that he had absolutely no information about what had occurred that night.

In cross-examination, Rudolf got Wolgamott to say that most of his clients were married men, and that most of the men's wives knew they were bisexual.

Wolgamott also said there was no romantic relationship between him and Peterson: "It was strictly physical," he said, adding that Peterson told him he had a great relationship with his wife. The defense said Wolgamott had nothing to do with the case and the prosecution called him as a witness to prejudice the jury against Peterson.

Haunted by the Past

But it turned out there was another mystery. Nearly two decades before Michael Peterson found his wife at the bottom of a staircase, he had been friends with another woman, Elizabeth Ratliff, who also apparently died after a fall down a staircase. Was this a tragic coincidence or a pattern? To find out, authorities exhumed the body. A new autopsy concluded that Ratliff had also been the victim of a homicidal assault.

Ratliff was the biological mother of Peterson's adopted daughters, Margaret and Martha, who were now in their early twenties. But despite the new allegations concerning their mother's death, they still believed Peterson was innocent in both deaths.

Privately, Margaret said: "The bottom line is I just don't care. It happened 18 years ago, and our dad had nothing to do with it."

Then the missing poker turned up.

A Last Stand

Peterson's adult son Clay found the poker leaning up against the wall near the car, while looking for tools in the garage.

Peterson and his lawyers couldn't believe their luck. "It's one of those moments that could be a turning point moment," Rudolf said in a meeting. Rudolf hoped the jurors would soon look at the prosecutor and say "Now what are you going to do?"

In a dramatic moment, Rudolf revealed the poker in court, and got the lead police investigator to admit it didn't seem to have any dents in it.

But the poker didn't change Caitlin's mind. Afterwards, she told a TV reporter: "You can claim whatever you want about it," she said. "It doesn't change the fact that my mother's autopsy report says that she was beaten to death."

In the prosecution's closing statement, assistant D.A. Freda Black told the jurors: "We have never told you that we were absolutely certain it was a blow poke that killed Ms. Peterson."

End It Here

On the day the verdict was to be delivered, Peterson vowed to his lawyers that if he was sent to prison, he didn't want his children burdened. "The main thing [is] I want the kids removed — I want them taken out of here — because they will be a mess," he said.

Martha called the prospect of her father going to jail "terrifying. It would be like losing everything … to lose our dad — basically he's the foundation of the family."

On Oct. 10, 2003, the jury found Peterson guilty of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without the benefit of parole.

Jurors said what had truly convinced them was the autopsy. "I think all of us felt like that no there is no way that anybody could get that many lacerations to the back of their head by themselves," said juror Shirley Ferrell.

Peterson maintains his innocence to this day. After the verdict he said he would refuse to appeal because he didn't want his family to suffer any more.

"I don't know what we were being punished for. I don't know why my children had to suffer what they did, why they were being punished, but I did feel that, let this … end right now," he said.

His lawyers are appealing.

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