Introduction. Location: Durham, North Carolina Date: December 9 th , 2001
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Location: Durham, North Carolina
Date: December 9th, 2001
Description: The Police receive an urgent call from Michael Peterson claiming that his wife has fallen down a flight of stairs. She is bleeding profusely, but is still breathing. When the medical team arrives five minutes later, its too late; the victim is dead. Peterson has traces of blood on his hands and face. For the detective in charge of the inquiry the facts speak for themselves: there is too much blood, and there are too many wounds on the victim. A week later, Michael Peterson is arrested.
Was it an accidence, or could it be murder?
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In the middle of the night on December 9th, 2001, Michael Peterson calls the police to tell them that he just found his wife Kathleen unconscious at the bottom of the stairs. He says that she is hardly breathing and that she must have fallen. But when the police arrive and discover a pool of blood around the victim’s body and lacerations on her skull, they immediately conclude that a crime has been committed. Michael Peterson is the main suspect, and a week later is officially charged with his wife’s murder. Peterson responds and hires David Rudolf, one of North Carolina’s most prominent attorneys, to defend him. Despite all appearances pointing directly to his guilt, Peterson’s children rally around him and vehemently proclaim his innocence.
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A few months after the death of Kathleen Peterson, her biological daughter Caitlin changes her mind and publicly accuses her stepfather Michael of her mother’s murder. Caitlin’s sudden turnabout is explained by the discovery of a hidden side of Michael’s life: the police have found evidence of unorthodox sexual practices on Michael Peterson’s computer. Peterson is bisexual, and according to the computer evidence, he occasionally seeks the company of young men whom he pays for their services. While nothing in the evidence collected by the police indicates a connection to Kathleen’s death, the prosecutor Jim Hardin suddenly has a motive for the crime: on the night of her death, Kathleen must have discovered her husband’s secrets and threatened to leave him.
In the weeks following Kathleen’s death, the prosecution discovers something that only reinforces their convictions: in 1985 a very good friend of Michael and Kathleen Peterson’s, Elisabeth Ratliff, was found dead at the bottom of a stairway. The incident occurred in Germany where Michael Peterson lived with his first wife, Patti, and Peterson was also thought to be the last person to see her alive. Peterson is immediately dubbed the “stairway serial killer,” and even though the German police and the autopsy report concluded years ago that Ratliff’s was an accidental death, the prosecutor, Jim Hardin, decides to exhume the body of Ratliff, buried in Texas, and bring it to North Carolina for a new autopsy.
The defense is hard hit: the new autopsy of Elisabeth Ratliff concludes that she was murdered. Michael Peterson cries out that it is a conspiracy and points to the fact that he took in Ratliff’s two girls, Margaret and Martha, after they were orphaned. With Peterson now accused of having murdered the girls’ biological mother as well as the mother who raised them, David Rudolf believes this may be a final blow for the jury and petitions to exclude the “German case” from the trail. A private hearing is organized for the judge to hand down a decision concerning this point, but against all expectations, the judge refuses to rule before the trail opens. At long last, the trail opens with a coup de theatre: the prosecution presents a fireplace tool known as a blowpoke contending that is an exact replica of the murder weapon.
The prosecution calls witness after witness to the stand, focusing on three key points: the quantity of blood found on and around Kathleen Peterson’s body, the wounds to her head, and the blowpoke used as the murder weapon. But the witnesses begin to falter under David Rudolf’s clever cross examination, and in an obstinate contest of eloquence, Rudolf pokes serious holes in their testimony. Meanwhile, Michael Peterson shuts himself up at home, surrounded by his children and brother, to escape the fury launched upon him by the media. And yet he knows the worst is still to come, as he looks forward to public exposure of his mist intimate secrets.
Prosecutor Jim Hardin draws a portrait of Michael Peterson as a sexual deviant. He calls Brent Wolgamottto the stand, a young prostitute with whom Peterson had exchanged explicit sexual messages via email prior to Kathleen Peterson’s death. Wolgamott’s testimony is dismissed as he never actually met Michael Peterson, but its effect on the jury is potentially devastating, just as with the “German case.” The judge finally decides to allow jury to hear witnesses concerning this “case within the case,” but only because the “coincidence is so striking.” Consequently witnesses take the stand to recount what they saw 18 years earlier, one November morning in 1985. The memories are mostly distant, but some are quite precise.
It is not the defense’s turn to call forth their witnesses. First to be called are the experts: Forensic Scientist Henry Lee demonstrates, paradoxically, the “there’s too much blood for a murder,” and Biomechanical Researcher FarisBandak demonstrates, with the help of a graphic simulation, the way in which Kathleen might have fallen down the stairs to self-inflict her head wounds. But is producing experts enough when not one, by two women have been found dead at the bottom of stairways? While this question is being argued by the defense, an extraordinary thing happens.
It’s almost over. After a three-month trail and the testimony of 65 witnesses, the defense and the prosecution are ready to make their closing arguments. The prosecution points to the “strange personality” of Michael Peterson and raises several other key points: because writing in his line of work, Peterson is an inveterate liar; his vilified bisexuality make him a pervert; his relationship with Elisabeth Ratliff marks him as a serial killer. Defense attorney David Rudolf follows and breaks down the prosecution’s case point by point, referring constantly to the principle of reasonable doubt; since there is not formal proof that Michael Peterson is guilty, the jury must declare him innocent. The jury deliberates for five days before coming to a verdict that will decide Peterson’s fate: life in prison without the possibility of parole, or freedom.
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