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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?

Staircase writeup
Staircase Writeup

Don’t forget to include the following:

  • Do you agree with the verdict? Why? Reasonable cause?

  • Discuss the makeup of the jury – is this important? Why or why not?

  • Where is Michael Peterson today?

  • Result of appeal(s) and request for a new trial

  • His life in prison

  • His family now – Where are they? Do they still support him?

Chapter 1 crime or accident
Chapter 1: Crime or Accident?

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.

Suspect michael peterson
Suspect: Michael Peterson

  • Accused of killing wife

  • Novelist of 4 books, one-time mayoral candidate

  • Studied political science at Duke University

  • Marine

  • Originally married to Patricia Sue Peterson

    • Had 2 sons – Clayton & Todd

    • Divorced

Victim kathleen atwater peterson
Victim: Kathleen Atwater (Peterson)

  • Died: December 9th, 2001

    • At the bottom of her staircase at home

  • Born in 1953 in Greensboro, NC

  • First female accepted into Duke ’s School of Engineering Program

  • First husband – Fred Atwater

    • They had 1 daughter: Caitlin

  • Started dating Michael Peterson in 1989

    • Married 1997

Clayton peterson
Clayton Peterson

  • Son of Michael and Patricia Peterson

  • Born in Germany than moved to NC to live with Michael and Kathleen

  • Spent 4 years in prison for indiscretion

    • Planted bomb at Duke University

Todd peterson
Todd Peterson

  • Son of Michael & Patricia

  • Born in Germany than moved to NC to live with Michael and Kathleen

  • Graduated from NC State and has been working on launching a website aimed at providing advice to high school students

Caitlin atwater
Caitlin Atwater

  • Daughter of Kathleen and Fred Atwater

  • Student at Cornell University

  • Her friendship with Margaret & Martha Ratliff in Durham ND lead to Michael Peterson meeting Kathleen Atwater

Bill peterson
Bill Peterson

  • Younger brother of Michael Peterson

  • Attorney

  • Put his own legal practice on hold to assist with the defense’s case

Elizabeth ratliff
Elizabeth Ratliff

  • Died: 1985

    • Found at the bottom of her staircase in Germany

  • Husband died due to heart attack in 1983

    • Two daughters: Margaret & Martha

  • Her and her husband become good friends with Patricia Peterson & Michael Peterson

  • Children were placed under legal guardianship of Michael Peterson and raised in accordance with Elizabeth’s wishes

Margaret martha ratliff
Margaret & Martha Ratliff

  • Daughters of Elisabeth Ratliff

  • After mother’s death in Germany – placed under the legal guardianship of Michael Peterson

David rudolf
David Rudolf

  • Lead Defense Attorney for Michael Peterson

Thomas maher
Thomas Maher

  • Defense Attorney – assisted David Rudolf with the defense of Michael Peterson

Jim hardin
Jim Hardin

  • Chief Prosecutor

  • Durham County District Attorney

  • Prosecuted Michael Peterson for his wife’s murder

Freda black
Freda Black

  • Prosecuting Attorney

  • Assistant District Attorney

  • Assisted Jim Hardin in the prosecution of Michael Peterson for his wife’s murder

Art holland
Art Holland

  • Detective

  • Investigating officer from the Durham Police Department

Dr deborah radisch
Dr. Deborah Radisch

  • Medical Examiner

  • Forensic Pathology

  • Determined Kathleen Peterson’s death was a homicide, not an accident

Dr henry lee
Dr. Henry Lee

  • Forensic Scientist

  • Provided forensic evidence supporting the accident theory in the case

Brent brad wolgamott
Brent “Brad” Wolgamott

  • Male Escort

  • Contacted by Michael Peterson via email multiple times prior to Kathleen’s death

  • Was on The Price is Right

Staircase write up
Staircase Write-up

Be sure to include the following:

  • Do you agree with the verdict? Why? Reasonable cause?

  • Discuss the makeup of the jury – is this important? Why or why not?

  • Where is Michael Peterson today?

  • Result of appeal(s) and request for a new trial

  • His life in prison

  • His family now – Where are they? Do they still support him?

Chapter 2 secrets lies
Chapter 2: Secrets & Lies

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.

Chapter 3 a striking coincidence
Chapter 3: A Striking Coincidence

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.

Chapter 4 a prosecution trickery
Chapter 4: A Prosecution Trickery

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.

Chapter 5 a weak case
Chapter 5: A Weak Case

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.

Chapter 6 the prosector s revenge
Chapter 6: The Prosector’s Revenge

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.

Chapter 7 the blowpoke returns
Chapter 7: The Blowpoke Returns

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.

Chapter 8 the verdict
Chapter 8: The Verdict

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.

Staircase write up1
Staircase Write-up

Don’t forget to include the following:

  • Do you agree with the verdict? Why? Reasonable cause?

  • Discuss the makeup of the jury – is this important? Why or why not?

  • Where is Michael Peterson today?

  • Result of appeal(s) and request for a new trial

  • His life in prison

  • His family now – Where are they? Do they still support him?