Non-Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the HBO Max series, I’ve tried not to ruin it for you.
I got a call in January from two readers who were upset with a story I had done with Judge Orlando Hudson, the judge in the Michael Peterson case. The story covered a broad range of subjects including the then-upcoming HBO docu-drama, “The Staircase” about the case. The callers were Brenda and Larry Pollard. Their names didn’t ring a bell. They objected that I had referred to the theory that Kathleen Peterson was attacked by an owl as “off-beat.” I quickly discovered that Larry Pollard had developed the owl theory.
Durham attorney Larry Pollard has been laughed at and ridiculed ever since he had posited the theory in 2003. There was even a cartoon in a local paper of owls in a police line-up.
Pollard was tired of the criticism and the dismissal of his theory by people who didn’t understand it.
I proposed and Pollard agreed to walk me through the theory at his office in Durham.
His firm is in a pink, mostly vacant office building his grandmother owned on Parish Street, what was once a power alley of Durham criminal defense lawyers. His office was cluttered with maps of the Peterson house, stuffed owls, books on owls, a replica of a human skull, and a white Styrofoam head with a red wig. It was very Stephen King-esque. I would soon learn these were all pieces of the puzzle as he laid out his evidence.
At 74, Pollard has the warmth and gentility of a grand Southern lawyer from an earlier era who thrives on the melodrama of the courtroom.
“People have repeatedly asked me how the owl got into the house. I never said the bird was inside the house. I have always said Kathleen was hit outside,” began Pollard. Over the next two hours, he meticulously walked me through the owl theory. It was rote for him, having been invited to present it in speeches at law schools and the media for over 20 years.
The Peterson Case
Michael Peterson was a Durham novelist. His wife, Kathleen, was an executive at Nortel. They lived in a mansion in the Forest Hills section of Durham. Larry and Brenda Pollard were their next-door neighbors.
On the unseasonably balmy night of December 9, 2001, the Petersons were sitting outside by their pool, sharing a bottle of wine. Kathleen got up and went inside the house. Several hours later, Michael found her at the foot of a staircase in a pool of blood and called 911. When the police arrived, she was dead.
Investigators said Michael had followed Kathleen into the house and had beaten her to death with a blunt instrument, perhaps a blow poke.
No murder weapon was ever found.
“This is a case where the Durham County investigators and the SBI all made a rush to judgment,” said Pollard.
“Everyone agreed the cause of death was exsanguination [caused by blunt force trauma]. It’s not a who dunnit, it’s a what happened,” David Rudolf, Peterson’s former defense attorney, told me in March.
In 2003, Peterson was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. As Peterson filed appeal after appeal (all of which were denied), Pollard continued to develop his theory. He met with medical experts and ornithologists. He spent endless hours in the library and went to the Smithsonian. It all supported and built on the evidence that Kathleen was attacked by an owl.
In 2011, it was discovered that SBI crime lab analyst, Duane Deaver, had perjured himself when he presented his credentials as a bloodstain analyst at the trial. As a result, Judge Hudson ordered a new trial.
In 2017, Peterson chose not to have a second trial and entered an Alford plea of guilty of manslaughter and innocent of murder. He was released on the eight years he had served in prison.
The cause of Kathleen Peterson’s death remains a mystery.
The Owl Theory
An avid sportsman, Larry Pollard has hung some of his hunting trophies in the basement where he watches TV.
“While watching coverage of the trial, I looked up at one particular deer, and I could feel some kind of communication with it.” It reminded Pollard of how he had followed the deer’s blood trail to find it after he shot it.
Suddenly he knew how Kathleen Peterson had died.
Kathleen entered her house that night and noticed two white balsa wood reindeer Christmas decorations that had been left inside. She carried them out to the circular drive in front of the house. While outside, an owl swooped down at 30 miles per hour, landed on her head, and dug its talons into her scalp.
Pollard noted that Kathleen had short blonde hair and wore brown and white clothing that night. “Owls go for the movement of the white color as it usually indicates a rabbit tail, a squirrel belly, or a raccoon against the contrast of the jet black ground. She looked like small prey. The bird realized its mistake and flew away.”
“The bird was not trying to kill her; it just wanted a meal. We always see these owls in our neighborhood, and usually, they don’t bother people.”
The Blood Trail
There were a few drops of blood on the steps outside the front door and a smear of blood on the front door frame.
Pollard speculated that after the owl attacked, Kathleen ran back into the house through the front door bleeding profusely. “She faints and lands against the wall in the staircase. Ten thousand spots of blood spatter along the wall … that’s a lot more than you’re going to get with just a beating,” said Pollard. “As a hunter, I can say they got the blood trail backward.”
Kathleen’s skull was not fractured. Skull fractures often accompany blunt force trauma, but not always.
According to Pollard, the pattern of gashes on the back of her head looked like owl talons made them. “The autopsy report said there were no other fatal wounds on her body anywhere. Anywhere,” he said.
During the autopsy, the medical examiner found microscopic feather fragments clutched in Kathleen’s hands with fresh droplets of her blood attached to her hair. “I call this my smoking feather,” explained Pollard. “This is the conclusive piece of evidence that proves Michael Peterson is an innocent man.”
When I got home from my interview with Pollard, my wife, Robin, a pretty darn good armchair sleuth listened to the recorded interview and looked at the photos our photographer, David Williams, had shot.
Robin said the theory sounded plausible. I agreed. There is enough evidence to prove that an owl had attacked Kathleen Peterson. However, there is also reasonable doubt, just as there is with the police theory, that Michael beat his wife to death.
It reminds me of the Kennedy assassination. There’s evidence that Oswald acted alone, evidence that there was a second gunman, and evidence of a conspiracy. Take your pick.
The owl theory occurred to Pollard late in the trial. He contacted Alice Mine at the NC State Bar. She suggested he present his evidence to Durham County DA Jim Hardin who was trying the case. Pollard took his evidence to Hardin’s office, but they were not able to meet. He then called David Rudolf, who was preparing his closing argument. Rudolf told him it was too late to present the theory.
In March of this year, Rudolf told me, “In all fairness to Larry, he didn’t understand the need to have his ducks, so to speak, in a row before he trotted it out. He didn’t have his experts lined up.”
“I do think there’s merit to [the owl theory],” he added.
“Can I say that’s what happened? No,” Rudolf said. “If I was trying this case now, would I introduce evidence as an alternative explanation? Absolutely, I would. The evidence is there. Where did the feathers come from? How did the blood drops get outside? I don’t know that anybody killed her. The real question is, will we ever know what happened to Kathleen Peterson. I think the answer is, no, we won’t.”
Motion for a New Trial
WRAL aired video provided by Pollard of an owl attacking a person. Peterson heard about it, called Pollard, and asked him to come to Nash Correctional Institution where he was incarcerated to explain the theory. Pollard said Peterson asked him to represent him and file a motion for a new trial. Hudson denied the motion.
Pollard and Peterson met with Chris Mumma, executive director of the NC Center on Actual Innocence, at their request. “The center does not take cases if someone has representation, and Mr. Peterson already had representation. I did suggest that they could conduct species DNA testing of the feathers,” said Mumma.
It’s been five years since the Alford plea effectively ended the Peterson case. Pollard admits he is “Don Quixote on a quest.”
“We can’t just put someone in jail and throw away the key if there is credible evidence that they might be innocent,” Pollard said.
“I have a sworn oath as a lawyer to seek justice. I don’t think I’m crazy. My goal was to prove him innocent, and restore his credibility and his rights. This is easy to prove if you follow the blood trail. A man’s life is at stake here, and I’ve got evidence that I think has a right to be shown to a Durham County jury.”
HBO Max Series
The HBO Max docu-drama series “The Staircase” premiered in May, starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette, based on the 2004 French-produced documentary by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.
HBO showrunner Antonio Campos interviewed Pollard at his office in Durham, but Pollard didn’t know if the series would give credence to his owl theory or if he would continue to be ridiculed and embarrassed on the national and world stage.
In the weeks leading up to the premiere, I sent Brenda stories about the series that were on the Internet. We would talk on the phone and try to speculate how HBO might portray the owl theory.
The early episodes of the eight-part series faithfully presented the owl theory. The Pollards were guardedly optimistic. Everything would come down to the last episode. Would we find out what really happened to Kathleen Peterson? Would the owl theory be validated?
The series is gripping, great entertainment. Colin Firth and Toni Collette are magnificent, portraying very complicated characters. The last episode will have you on the edge of your couch. To the people familiar with the case who have sniffed about inaccuracies, this is a docu-drama, not a documentary. The basic facts are all there.
I spoke with the Pollards a few hours after they watched the last episode. They sounded a bit relieved.
In the weeks since the HBO series started streaming, the owl theory has gained a lot attention from the media worldwide, including 60 Minutes Australia. “People have really leaned into the owl theory,” said Brenda.
“Someday I hope the owl theory will be validated in the court of public opinion and by the media and that justice will be served,” said Pollard.