Inside the 'Staircase' Murder Trial

ByABC News
July 21, 2004, 10:13 PM

June 22, 2004 -- -- 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.

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