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Peterson on trial

The devil is in the details


I understood my responsibilities concerning the Peterson trial were to dress in cool clothes, keep a mellow buzz on, develop a little paunch and wear a hat. Record the moment. It was supposed to be all about me.

All I knew, or cared, was that in two weeks the court had established that (1) Kathleen Peterson was dead and (2) the Petersons were rich--a dizzying narrative. Two whole weeks in court and they just have gotten to the part where the yellow tape goes up around the scene. Then the word came down that it would be perhaps helpful if I would do some of what they call reporting. OK. OK. No more lying on a couch watching CourtTV. I have to actually do something.

I thought we had a deal.

So I ambled grudgingly to the D.H. Hill library, took care of an overdue book (thanks Susan) and actually looked for original online documents. In front of the computer for the first time, things got really, really strange really, really quickly.

There is all kinds of stuff available, the notorious jurors' questionnaire--fascinatin' readin' in itself:

So then it's on to the autopsy and a detail that I, in my calculated, studious ignorance, had managed to avoid: "Hair is noted to be grasped in both the left and the right hands. ..."

Whoa. Now I know I signed on to this thing a little late--lurid murders not being the sort of thing a balanced person makes daily fare, but with the most cursory snapshot, I've run across a fact that seems, on face value, to potentially damage both arguments, defense and prosecution. And also adds a distinctly icky, spooky quality to the proceedings--the possibility of an unknown person. And the DNA results on the hair aren't public. Or at least I couldn't find out in a call to Rebecca Reid, a Durham crime scene technician who's a delightful young lady, voice all honeysuckle. "Even if I knew, I couldn't tell you." I tried humor, nothing worked. So I told her to drop by the courthouse, let's go to the pharmacy, git us a Coke and talk about the old days. She laughed all lazy like.

They have to break this information. I called an old career criminal I know who used to rampage in Durham back in the day. He alluded to something he'd heard just that day, some closely held information mentioned on TV.

I raced over to a house with a TV, barged in and turned the set on. I watched CourtTV's wrap-up, "Closing Arguments," and soon they have The N&O's Demorris Lee in the hot seat under the tents. The CourtTV chick tries to get him to divulge the contents of the autopsy. Demorris won't budge, smiling, saying Rudolf will "haul you out of that courtroom" and such. Then he will only smile, claims he has no idea what it is, except that whatever it was made Caitlin Atwater end up over on the right-hand side of the courtroom. He says we will all find out what the mystery evidence in the autopsy is "in a couple of weeks."

Am I just stupid or something? Is there something I'm missing here? They claim they can't tell you what is in the coroner's report although the media all have links to it on their own Web sites. This makes absolutely no sense.

Everybody has access to the autopsy, the hair (and the ghastly nature of the injuries), but somehow, this late in the game, this important fact, mentioned once back in February of last year, has slipped beneath the waves. While there is all sorts of steamy talk about hair samples on the floor, this potentially valuable piece of evidence, one that the case could well hinge on, does not seem to be widely known. It certainly was the first time I'd heard of it and I've only bumped into one other person--my editor--who did. Not until I actually looked did I find it. Maybe it's Kathleen's own hair, grabbed in the midst of whatever caused her horrid death. Maybe it's someone else's--but you'd think if it were someone else's, DA Jim Hardin might have mentioned it in his opening statement.

Read the autopsy yourself:

So the lid is off the black chest and the bat and snakes and spiders are fluttering and creeping into the light. All with these definite, recordable movements en toto, like trying to keep tabs on the movement of a field of fireflies on a night a year and a half ago.

The actual coroner's report is enough to keep one busy for a long, long time. We have right up front the handwritten narrative of Dr. Kenneth Snell, the Durham County medical examiner who assumed jurisdiction of the body with an addendum written later, words crossed out, a med list (a really ferocious allergy package)--his initial interpretation amended after consultation with the police.

Then there's the matter of what they call ischematic neural necrosis--in this case the death throes of a brain deprived of blood (oxygen), a condition with a window of over two hours. Then consider EMS tech James Rose's guess at how long she had lay in drying and dried blood: about 45 minutes before he viewed the body. Peterson said in the first call that Kathleen was breathing. That's 40 minutes at the least or hours at the most that the two scenarios would have her dead.

There's a Canadian case of one Clayton Johnson whose wife was found dying in a pool of blood at the bottom of a flight of stairs in Nova Scotia. Considered to be an accident at first, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police re-examined the death and eventually arrested Johnson who was tried, convicted--and later released. [ and ]

A lawyer with the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC) Phil Campbell, who handled the case, said of the Mounties' charges: "An atmosphere of pervasive suspicion is just ripe for creative memories to thrive. They (the Mounties) came up with a whole new story about the bloodstains."

A key factor in a murder conviction based on circumstantial evidence is signs of premeditation beyond a reasonable doubt. Michael Peterson is a combat veteran in possession of a professionally rewarded imagination. Would a guy with a resume like that have so royally screwed up something he had, by the definition of the charge, pre-planned? EndBlock

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