It's nearly eighty degrees, unusually warm for a late-February day. The sun is shining, so Michael Peterson walks into the Durham County Courthouse wearing a pair of dark aviator sunglasses. He makes his way to the seventh floor and enters a courtroom surrounded by members of his legal team. He takes a seat and begins to review documents, stopping to pour a Coca-Cola into a Styrofoam cup.
When he's finished, a cameraman walks over to the table and promptly removes the soda can from view. He and other members of the local media have been waiting for more than fifteen years to put a bookend on one of the longest, most salacious, and most expensive trials in North Carolina history, and they want their shot to be unblemished.
A lawyer for the former Herald-Sun columnist, novelist, and one-time Durham mayoral candidate tells Peterson to keep his cool.
"Don't get upset," he says. "Don't get upset."
Peterson's team—led by high-profile criminal defense attorney David Rudolf—has a vested interest in ensuring nothing goes wrong on this particular Friday. They know that if everything goes according to plan, their client, a man convicted of first-degree murder in October 2003, will, within a few hours, walk out of the courthouse a free man. So it's not surprising that, before the hearing begins, when Peterson's asked if he wishes he did anything differently over the years, Rudolf declines to answer.
"Well, we're not going to talk about that now," he says after a brief, exasperated laugh.
But moments after the seventy-three-year-old pleads guilty to voluntary manslaughter, when he is officially free, he does what people have come to expect from the gifted storyteller since a few months after his wife died. He insists he's innocent of her murder, that his conviction was nothing short of a conspiracy, an act of revenge. And during a bizarre press conference, he shows little emotion when he discusses his late wife and the blood relatives she left behind.
Instead, he focuses on himself, saying pleading guilty to having a role in his wife's December 9, 2001, death doesn't mean that he's actually guilty—that it was "one of the most difficult decisions I have made in my life."
"The second most difficult thing I have ever done was to sit through that trial and listen to lies, perjury, fake evidence, made-up evidence, withheld evidence, unconstitutional searches," Peterson tells the press. "So many times I wanted to jump up and yell, 'Liar!' It's not right."
The truth is, the evidence collected by the Durham Police Department in the days after Kathleen Peterson's death painted a clear picture for the jury that, after four days of deliberation, convicted Peterson nearly fourteen years ago. And the case the state made against Peterson was sufficient for a judge to award tens of millions of dollars in damages to Kathleen's daughter, Caitlin Atwater, at the tail end of a wrongful-death suit.
But Peterson, again casting himself as a victim, didn't talk Friday about the autopsy report that revealed significant damage to his wife's head consistent with a beating and not a drunken fall down the stairs, as he has claimed. He failed to mention the bruises all over her body and the family's financial troubles, which might have been ameliorated by her $1.6 million life insurance policy. He opted out of discussing emails he sent to a male escort. He didn't make an affirmative case for his innocence but rather used his moment in the spotlight to accuse the police and the district attorney's office of stacking the deck against him.
"I spent a lot of time in Reno," he told reporters. "The first and most important thing that anybody learns who lives in a city that has casinos is that you're not going to beat the house. Don't gamble. That's pretty much what the judicial system is. It is stacked against the defendant and they will use anything—as they did in my case—to convict you. So why would I play that game again? Am I going to put my life and my freedom in the hands of the Durham police? The district attorney? Look what they did the first time. What is to prevent them from doing it again? So no. I'm not going to play, and I told David, 'I want out.'"
But why would an innocent man plead guilty a few months ahead of his retrial, which he was granted after Judge Orlando Hudson determined that a key blood-spatter expert's testimony should be removed from the record? Why not clear his name, knowing that several damning pieces of evidence have, in the period since his trial, been contaminated and deemed inadmissible?
If anything, the state's case against Peterson is much weaker in 2017 than it was in 2003—which is why prosecutors were willing to agree to an Alford plea, a legal contrivance in which Peterson admits the state has enough evidence to convict him but still maintains his innocence.
For Peterson, the plea had an inescapable logic to it. It meant certain immediate freedom, a sentence of time already served. There'd be no possibility of a conviction that could lead to him spending the rest of his days behind bars. Other than being a convicted felon, there was no downside, especially given the risks.
But Kathleen's sisters would tell you he took it because, deep down, he knows he did it.
- Photo Provided by Caitlin Atwater
A few days after Kathleen was found at the bottom of a staircase in the Petersons' home on Cedar Street—more than a week before Peterson was indicted by a grand jury and turned himself in on a first-degree-murder charge—Caitlin Atwater returned to her childhood home for the first time since the killing.
The bloodied staircase had been boarded up. The house—particularly the kitchen—was a far cry from its typically organized state. There were cards, flowers, and casseroles on the kitchen counter. Wine and liquor bottles, gifts from grieving friends and neighbors, were everywhere. There was no hint of the Christmas holiday to come—none of the sights and smells associated with Kathleen's favorite time of year, like the special shortbread cookies dusted with powdered sugar she made every winter.
It had been a freak accident, Atwater believed. A terrible, tragic accident. She would later come to change her mind. At that point, the autopsy report that ruled that Kathleen had suffered injuries inconsistent with a fall down the stairs had not yet been released. There had been no revelations about a different woman Peterson was allegedly the last to see alive, who was also found dead at the bottom of a staircase years earlier. There was no gay innuendo or analysis of the Peterson's declining financial status.
There were then only remembrances of the victim—a service at the iconic Duke Chapel and funeral at Maplewood Cemetery four days after Kathleen's death, as well as the publication of an obituary that revealed much about the Nortel Networks executive, mother, and glass-ceiling-shattering engineer.
As the Peterson trial became a national phenomenon, millions would learn that Kathleen Hunt Atwater Peterson was born February 21, 1953, and grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, that she graduated first in her class at J.P McCaskey High School and chose to attend Duke University over Princeton. They would hear reports that, in 1971, she became the first female student accepted into Duke's engineering school, that she met her first husband in Durham, and that the two had a child in the early eighties.
Friends would reveal that Kathleen was heavily involved with the Durham Arts Council and American Dance Festival, and that she hosted dozens of parties for other Bull City socialites and philanthropists. Her daughter and sisters would talk about the loved one they lost.
But after her stepfather's conviction in October 2003, Atwater put Durham in her rearview. She finished school and married a man she'd met at Cornell. She had two children and told herself that moving on with her life is what Kathleen would have wanted her to do. (At her request, the INDY is not revealing Atwater's married name.)
In 2004, six months after Atwater won her wrongful-death suit, Peterson filed for bankruptcy. That September, an appellate court rejected Peterson's lawyer's argument that the criminal trial was filled with inflammatory, irrelevant evidence and judicial mistakes. In 2007, the state Supreme Court rejected his appeal for a new trial. The saga appeared to be over.
But in a way only such a salacious case could, it took a turn in January 2011, when Duane Deaver, a State Bureau of Investigation blood-spatter expert who testified that the blood found inside Peterson's shorts could have only gotten there if he had been standing over his wife and beating her as she died, was fired for negligence.
Peterson would ultimately be granted a retrial in 2011, and the state's case against him was supposed to be heard again this May. Of course, that won't happen now.
Zamperini didn't mince words when she addressed her former brother-in-law Friday. Peterson, she said, beat and murdered her sister—leaving a void in her life and the lives of Kathleen's other family members. And while she admitted she'd rather see him in jail for the rest of his life, his guilty plea is justice, however imperfect. Kathleen's other sister, Lori Campbell, agreed.
"It's right that Michael Peterson finally acknowledges in court that there is enough evidence for the prosecution to convict him for the death of my sister, Kathleen, yet it's wrong that after a jury sentenced him to a life in prison for the murder of his wife, he gets to be a free man while Kathleen lies in her grave," she said. "Closure is for a door. Not for my murdered sister."
Atwater, in an exclusive interview with the INDY published Friday morning, said there would never be closure. But she didn't want to discuss the trial or her mother's killer or her feelings about the Alford plea.
- Indy File Photo
"The only thing that I have to say about the trial and all the subsequent fallout is that, if there was any closure to possibly come from all of this, it came after sitting through the entire trial and listening day after day to all the evidence—on both sides," she said. "And after the closing arguments, when all was said and done, I felt confident that I knew what happened. I knew what happened to my mom. While there's no true closure that can ever come for an event like this, for a loss this deep, I was ready to walk away and start moving forward with my life."
Nothing that's happened since the trial—the appeals, the infamous "owl theory" (in which a neighbor of the Petersons suggested that an owl had attacked Kathleen and caused her death*), the SBI fiasco—has changed how she feels.
So she chose to talk about the woman she lost, to ensure that the millions who have followed the Peterson case for all these years didn't forget that there were many victims in this case, one of them a mother who would do anything to make sure her loved ones, especially her daughter, were provided with special memories to cherish for a lifetime.
She talked about her fifth or sixth birthday, how Kathleen—despite her long hours at Nortel and her role as a prominent Durham socialite—went to great lengths to ensure her little girl had the perfect tea party. And she talked about how she used to keep a list, several pages of things Kathleen wasn't able to experience with her daughter, and said she found that the milestones were easier to get through than the routine.
"Of course, there are the clichés, but I think the big days, like getting married and having kids or buying a new home, the big things in your life, the anticipation of those, of not having my mom there, those weren't as bad as I thought because I was so dreading it," Atwater said. "When those moments finally arrive, you've already been through so much emotionally, that, yes, it's still hard, but at least you know why it's hard."
It's the constant fear of losing her connection to Kathleen that will forever make Atwater a victim.
"When your memories start to fade some, and they have started to fade, it's hard," she said. But it also drives her "to live the way I think I would if she were here with me."
At her house, Atwater displays just one picture of her mother. The image embodies the way she sees Kathleen more than fifteen years after her death. In it, Caitlin, perhaps five years old, sits on her mother's lap at the top of a mountain. They're looking out over water, their turned faces revealing no discernible details.
But it brings back a feeling: the freedom of the wind and the beauty of their surroundings, a mother wrapping her arms around her daughter. And it's that warmth—that instinct to live for her family—that defines Kathleen all these years later.
"I've tried to be the person I think I would have been if she were here," Atwater said. "And hopefully, that's a part of her legacy I can pass on to my own kids."
Additional reporting by Meagan Howard.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Imperfect Justice."Correction: This story originally indicated that, in the so-called owl theory, the owl had flown into the home. In fact, in a letter written to then-District Attorney James Hardin Jr. in 2003, Larry Pollard, an attorney and neighbor who developed the theory, wrote that “Kathleen Peterson was possibly struck by an owl outside her residence.”