On December 9th 2001, emergency services were called by Michael Peterson. He reported his wife, Kathleen, had fallen down the stairs. He claimed he had been outside and had returned to the house to find Kathleen lying at the bottom of the stairs. She died from her injuries. A medical examiner found she had died from injuries to her head; seemingly by a blunt object. She had injuries to her neck as well.
The cause of death was noted as homicide. Michael Peterson was arrested for the murder of his wife. He pled not guilty to the charge.
Michael was married previously and lived with his ex wife in Germany for a while. While they were there they became friends with Elizabeth Ratliff and her husband. They remained close after Elizabeth's husband died. Following Elizabeth's death in 1985, Michael became guardian to her two daughters. When Michael and his wife divorced in 1987, his own children lived with his wife while Elizabeth's daughters remained with him. He ended up moving to North Carolina, USA. His sons later moved in with him.
Kathleen and Michael moved in together in 1989 and were married in 1997. Kathleen was a successful executive business woman; and Michael was an author. He had three published books and also worked for a newspaper. Peterson had also tried to run for mayor at one point. He was unsuccessful, and during this time it had emerged he had lied about some of his military history.
During Michael Peterson's trial, prosecutors made many claims against Michael, including that he had lied about his military history. They also suggested that Michael was unhappy in his marriage, because he was bisexual and he wanted to end the marriage. This was disputed by the defence who claimed that Kathleen knew about his sexual preferences and was fine with the situation. Also brought in as a motive was a life insurance policy on Kathleen for just over $1 million.
It was claimed at trial that a poker, which was missing from the home was most likely the murder weapon (this claim was apparently discounted by the jury).
The prosecution was also able to bring into testimony their suspicions about Elizabeth Ratliff's death to use against him.
After Kathleen's death, police began to suspect that Michael was somehow involved in Elizabeth's 'accident'. She, like Kathleen, had been found dead at the bottom of some stairs.
According to the autopsy at the time she had suffered a brain haemorrhage, this causing her to fall down the stairs. On the night of her death Michael and his wife at the time had had dinner with Elizabeth, and Peterson had stayed behind to help put her daughters to bed. So as well as being the last person to see Kathleen alive, he was also the last to see Elizabeth.
Before he went on trial for Kathleen's murder, Elizabeth's body was exhumed. A second autopsy was carried out by the same examiner who had examined Kathleen's body. He claimed to find evidence, along with new witnesses, that suggested her cause of death was homicide. Peterson was not charged with murder, but the prosecution were allowed to bring in information about this case into trial.
Verdict, Appeal and Retrial Attempts
On 10th October 2003, Michael Peterson was found guilty of the murder of Kathleen Peterson and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Peterson's defence team appealed, stating judicial mistakes. This appeal was rejected, however he was able to appeal this decision, because it was not unanimous. This appeal also failed. In 2008, Michael had new attorneys who applied for a new trial. This was also rejected. Michaels defence team continued to make different attempts for a retrial. One of the reasons for wanting a retrial including an expert witness who had apparently misrepresented the evidence. This same expert witness had been sacked after it was found he had misrepresented evidence in numerous other cases.
Eventually a new trial was due to begin in 2017, however before this could happen Michael Peterson pled guilty to manslaughter. The plea was what in America is called an 'Alford plea', which basically means not admitting guilt, but admitting that the prosecution does have enough evidence to convict. He was sentenced to 86 months in prison, which meant with the time he had already served he didn't face additional time in jail.
This is another case that to me is based on circumstantial evidence, and not very strong circumstantial evidence really. Although I'm undecided over Michael Peterson's guilt, the coincidence with Elizabeth's death I believe could be just that, a coincidence. what would his motive be to kill this lady?
Regarding his motive for killing Kathleen, because of an unhappy marriage, why wouldn't he just get a divorce like he had done with his previous wife?
One theory that has be put forward for this case, which I find a bit far-fetched, is that Kathleen was attacked by an owl in her garden, and ran into the house collapsing at the bottom of the stairs, so she never actually fell downstairs. Apparently a few microscopic owl feathers had been found on her body. People who believe in this theory believe that the marks on Kathleen's head match that of owls talons. Allegedly owl attacks have been known to happen in the area. I find this theory quite hard to believe, but who knows? Strange things do happen.
I would be interested to hear any thoughts you might have on this case. Let me know in the comment section.