The shock hit Kathleen Peterson’s family Dec. 15, 2011. And then the wait began. And that wait continues.
That was a little more than 10 years after she was found dead in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase in the Forest Hills mansion she shared with her husband, Michael Peterson.
In 2003, a Durham jury convicted Michael Peterson of first-degree murder in her death, and Judge Orlando Hudson sentenced him to a life term without hope of parole. On that December 2011 day, though, Hudson granted Peterson a new trial, and he was released on bail the next day. In July 2014, Hudson lifted bond restrictions that included house arrest (the top photo is from that hearing).
This is in contrast to another case awaiting a similar next step in the legal process. In July 2014, Hudson also overturned the conviction of Darryl Anthony Howard in two 1991 murders. But while an appeals process has kept Howard in the Warren Correctional Institution in Manson, Peterson has been seen shopping around Durham and working out at the Lakewood YMCA.
The long wait for a possible retrial has been frustrating for Kathleen Peterson’s family. Among family members who have publicly professed their belief in his guilt are Kathleen’s sisters, Candace Zamperini and Lori Campell; Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin Atwater; and Peterson’s sister, Ann Christensen.
Zamperini and Campell spoke passionately at that July 2014 hearing when an ankle monitor also was removed.
“It takes all our strength to be in the same room with him, even with your armed guards. It’s terrifying,” Zamperini said at the hearing. “This monitoring is the only way we get peace and some semblance of security at night.”
In addition, Margaret Blair and Rosemary Kelloway, the sisters of Liz Ratliff, aren’t happy to see Peterson free. Ratliff also was found dead at the bottom of a staircase. Many suspect Peterson was involved in her death in Germany in November 1985. He never was charged, but evidence surrounding her death was heard in Peterson’s trial.
The aforementioned family members were long ago convinced of his guilt given the abundance of evidence. Much of that evidence has nothing to do with the work of SBI blood analyst Duane Deaver, whose discredited work was the basis of Hudson’s decision to grant a new trial.
According to Candy Clark, an administrative assistant in the Durham County District Attorney’s office, Hudson (above photo) would preside over a retrial and Assistant District Attorney Jim Dornfried would prosecute the case. But her guess is that a trial, assuming there is no plea agreement, wouldn’t begin until late fall at the earliest.
The trial would feature an odd dynamic of a prosecutor arguing a case in front of a judge who defeated him in an election. Dornfried (below photo) lost the 2012 election for Superior Court Judge in Judicial District 14A to Hudson by a 69.8%–30.2% margin.
There are three “settings” that need to be completed before a trial starts. The first, which includes determination of the defense attorney — Peterson will be represented by
court-appointed Raleigh lawyer Mike Klinkosum (below) — and initial discovery has been completed.
Klinkosum, named one of the top N.C. lawyers by North Carolina Super Lawyers Magazine, was the attorney for Grant Hayes for a few months before Hayes’ 2013 trial. Hayes said that Klinkosum didn’t do what he asked and Klinkosum reported that he had an ethical conflict. With another lawyer defending his case, Hayes was convicted of
first-degree murder in the death of Laura Ackerson.
Klinkosum helped work for the freedom of Greg Taylor, who was wrongly convicted of first-degree murder.
Clark said that the case currently is in the second setting, when the discovery process continues.
“They still have to get discovery, such as all these documentaries, they have to get unedited copies of the films and all of that, so it’s not as easy as you would think it would be,” Clark said. “All of that has to be gathered because a lot of post-Peterson [trial] stuff happened, so that has to be gathered and discovered, both sides actually, so the State is given reciprocal discovery also.”
Getting all of the unedited films wouldn’t be a small task considering all of the documentaries produced about the case, including The Staircase, which edited more than 600 hours of footage into eight 45-minute episodes. There are two additional episodes that were added after Peterson was granted a new trial.
“At this point, there’s not a lot going on, it’s on second setting and they’re still in the process of getting the discovery, making sure everything’s done, possibly talking any kind of plea negotiations, and then they’ll set a trial date, but we’re not there yet,” she said.
Once it reaches the third setting, there will either be an arraignment or a day and time set to hear a plea agreement. If there is no plea deal, Hudson and both sides would meet to determine when the trial dates would be set.
The wait continues, more than four years after Peterson was granted a new trial.