Michael Peterson turns 80 this year. He is using the milestone to speak for the first time about the 2003 trial that sent him to jail for life for the murder of his wife, Kathleen.
Kathleen, Michael, and their blended family of four children lived in a mansion in the tony section of Durham, NC. Michael was a successful author and a candidate for mayor several years earlier. Kathleen was an executive with telecommunications company Nortel. She was Peterson’s second wife. By all accounts, it was a happy marriage.
On the night of December 9, 2001, the couple was sitting by their pool drinking wine. Kathleen went into the house first. When Michael entered later, he found his wife unresponsive and lying in a pool of blood at the foot of a staircase. He called 9-1-1. When first responders arrived, she was dead.
At a 2003 trial, Durham District Attorney James Hardin argued that Peterson had beaten his wife to death with a blunt instrument. Peterson’s defense attorney, David Rudolf, countered that Kathleen had fallen down the stairs.
Peterson was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
The question, how did Kathleen Peterson die, has remained unanswered for 22 years. French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Netflix documentary about the case, “The Staircase,” and last year’s HBO mini-series of the same title were huge hits. It was a sensation on Court TV and spawned stories on TV and radio, books, podcasts and magazine articles. The 25th anniversary of Kathleen’s death in 2026 will undoubtedly fan the flames of Peterson-mania.
“You have these three key ingredients, sex, money and murder,” said Peterson. “When is this fucking thing going to end? It goes on and on and on.”
We met for a three-hour interview in early July at his two-bedroom apartment in a wooded Durham neighborhood where he walks five miles daily. The apartment was cluttered with houseplants and artifacts from a lifetime of travel which are being cataloged for an auction.
‘I Didn’t Do It’
BF: Were you responsible for your wife’s death?
We were at the pool that night. She had to go to work in the morning to have this conference with Nortel, and then I walked in, and she’s at the bottom of the stairs. David [Rudolf] asked, ‘Why did you think she fell?’ [I said] ‘Well, for fuck’s sake, there’s blood, and she’s at the bottom of the stairs. What do you think happened? She fell down the stairs.’
My brother is absolutely convinced it was an intruder. All I know for an absolute fact; I didn’t do it. Did she fall? Was she hit? Was it an owl? I don’t know. I can’t come up with an answer. It’s pointless. What good would it do now?
Peterson is bisexual. During the trial, Assistant District Attorney Freda Black showed the jury photos of a gay man Peterson met online but never in person. She called the photos “filth, pure T filth.”
MP: What happened in that trial could not happen today. It’s just simply not possible for Harden and Freda, racing around showing these pictures, [changing voice] ‘He’s guilty because he’s bisexual.’ Try that one today in court. It’s just not gonna happen. You can’t shame anybody out of anything.
And the one that I blame is [Judge Orlando] Hudson, who is a good liberal Democrat. I’m a good liberal Democrat, but I spent eight years in prison because that asshole did not make correct judicial decisions.
In 2006, the NC Court of Appeals rejected Peterson’s claim that he did not get a fair trial because of repeated judicial mistakes in admitting evidence.
MP: [Judge] Sam Irwin wanted to overturn my case. ‘No harmless error,’ said the other two [judges]. Harmless error for the bisexuality and all of that, and Hudson admits later that he made a mistake doing these things. OK, thanks, but nevertheless, I spent eight years in prison because you made the wrong decision on several major points, homophobia being one of them, and it became a very homophobic trial.
BF: Did Kathleen know you were bisexual?
MP: Kathleen and I never talked about my bisexuality, but there was a silent understanding.
Liz Ratliff’s Body
Shortly before the trial, DA Hardin ordered the exhumation of the body of Elizabeth “Liz” Ratliff. In 1985, the Ratliffs and the Petersons were friends and neighbors in Germany when Liz was found dead at the bottom of her home’s staircase. German and U.S. military determined at the time she had died of a stroke. But in a made-for-TV spectacle, Ratliff’s decaying body was flown from its Texas grave to Durham, where the county medical examiner ruled Ratliff had been murdered.
BF: Do you think testimony regarding Liz’s death impacted the jury?
MP: I think a lot of it had to do with Liz. We are watching the TV, and they’re at the graveyard. Then they bring the body back, and it’s filmed all the way. (changing his voice) ‘It didn’t have any effect on the jury.’ Are you kidding me? That and the homophobia. Here are the photographs of Liz in the coffin. And the filth, the filth, the filth. Hell, I would have probably convicted me. (laughs).
Blood Spatter Analysis
In 2010, Peterson’s case was overturned, and a new trial was ordered when Judge Hudson ruled that State Bureau of Investigation Analyst Duane Deaver had given false testimony and lied about his experience doing blood spatter analysis.
MP: The moment that I thought for sure we’re gonna win was the filming of Duane Deaver when he’s beating this sponge. I think he did it 40 times, and then on the 41st time, he got sort of a blood spatter that he wanted. And there’s his assistant; she does a little dance, and they high-five each other. Who could not watch that and realize that this is just bullshit?
‘I Wish I Had Testified’
BF: Do you wish you and your family had testified?
MP: Oh, absolutely. I wish I had testified. [Jury consultant] Margie [Fargo] was saying [to Rudolf], ‘You need to personalize Mike, need to bring him alive here, put his family on, let his children say what they have to say.’ David didn’t want to do that. He thought we won on the basics, on the merits of his arguments, and he did. But the jury went the other way.
In a July 27, 2023, email to me, Rudolf wrote: “When the prosecutor wants to convict someone and is permitted to go beyond what should be allowed, no one is safe.
“We all felt their experts had been neutralized by cross-examination and by our experts. And most importantly, if Mike or any of his children testified, his bisexuality, his ‘double-life,’ and the death in Germany would have been rehashed ad nauseam by the prosecutor. And, of course, Michael had lied about his purple heart in Vietnam during the mayoralty race, which was exposed. Mike as a liar would have become a new theme for the prosecutors.
“Hindsight is blind. I believe to this day that the right decision was made. I don’t believe his testimony could or would have made a difference in the end. The trial was not fair. Irrelevant and prejudicial evidence was allowed (which Judge Hudson subsequently and publicly regretted) [sic], that junk science was knowingly used to convict him, and that Deaver committed perjury, as Judge Hudson subsequently found. That’s why Mike was found guilty. He never should have been.”
The Owl Theory
Durham attorney Larry Pollard, the Peterson’s neighbor and an avid hunter, speculates that after Kathleen left the pool that evening, she went to the side of the house to set up outdoor Christmas decorations. Pollard believes an owl mistook her hair for prey and attacked. Then she ran inside, bleeding from the attack, and collapsed at the base of the staircase. Pollard has spent years developing a mountain of evidence to support his theory.
“[The owl] started taking off because it realized it had made a mistake,” Pollard said. “The talons stopped at the skull bone. They just kind of rake down the skull and slice her like a can opener. The medical examiner photographed the wounds, and you see them clearly, and it fits the footprints of the owl.”
MP: I was in prison when [Pollard] sent me a photograph of the autopsy with owl talons. When I saw those talons, my God, had that been brought up at the trial, there probably would have been reasonable doubt. As far as what I believe, I don’t know. [Then girlfriend] Sophie [Brunet] and I talked about it. [She said,] ‘Wouldn’t you feel better knowing that Kathleen was killed by an owl?’ I said, ‘What difference does it make; she’s dead. This is not going to bring her back or shorten my time [in prison].’
Antonio Campos, the showrunner of the HBO series, “The Staircase,” and Rudolf told me last year that the owl theory was “plausible.” Rudolf said had there been a retrial; he would have presented the owl theory to create reasonable doubt.
Indonesian writer Tiddy Smith upped the ante with his new book, “Death By Talons.” In it, he writes that there is evidence that after the owl attacked Kathleen outside, it stayed on her head when she ran inside.
“There were droppings left on the stairwell that were very clearly huge guano stains exactly under where Kathleen’s head was lying,” said Smith.
“I agree 190% that the bird was still attached to her when she went inside,” Pollard said.
MP: I was there. I saw no feathers. Todd saw no feathers. EMS emergency people, they didn’t see any feathers.
‘This Is a Shit Hand’
BF: Are you angry about everything that has happened? Did you want to seek retribution?
MP: Anger doesn’t do you any good. It’s wasted. One of the first things I learned in prison was, ‘Don’t let anyone get in your mind. If they get in your mind, they own you.’ There’s no point in holding grudges. Who does that harm? [I told myself] ‘This is a shit hand you’ve been dealt. You’re in prison. OK, you’re not getting out. That’s all there is to it. What are you gonna do now? Well, I think I’ll just go on with my life. I’m not going to beat my head against the wall. I’m not going to scream.’ Who gives a shit? It’s not going to change, so you do the best you can.
The Alford Plea
In lieu of the retrial, in 2017, Peterson entered an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter (a guilty plea entered because evidence exists for a conviction, but the defendant asserts their innocence). Peterson had already served more time than the Alford Plea sentence, so he was not returned to prison.
BF: Do you regret taking the Alford plea instead of having a retrial?
MP: All of us [the family] were talking on the sofa. Clayton said, ‘It’s a crooked table. Don’t do it.’ Would I be acquitted? Yeah. And if I’m acquitted, what does that mean? ‘Oh, that means you’re free.’ I’m free as it is right now. Hell, I might be convicted and go back to prison; I doubt it, but is that something you really wanna risk? I was 74. Did I want to put the kids through that again? It was just horrifying.
BF: There was a rumor that Kathleen had a $1.4 million insurance policy.
MP: I can’t remember the value of her Nortel insurance policy. I don’t think it was anywhere near that high. Her first husband, Fred Atwater, was the beneficiary. I believe he shared it with Caitlin [Kathleen’s biological daughter].
‘I Live Comfortably’
BF: You wrote a number of books before you went to prison. Are you still writing?
MP: I wrote five books that were published with considerable success prior to my prison term. A TIME OF WAR was semi-autobiographical about my time with the Marines, sold for $1,200,000, and was translated into eight languages. I just finished [several books]. I had to publish them on Amazon because I can’t really make any money.
In 2008, Kathleen’s biological daughter, Caitlin Atwater, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Peterson. Under the terms of a $25 million settlement, any money he earns goes directly to Atwater.
MP: “Behind the Staircase.” Grand Central [Publishing] bought that one for a fair amount of money, but I had to turn it down because I know that if I do get the money, I’m gonna have to give it to Caitlin. God dammit, that’s not gonna happen.
I don’t need anything. It would be nice to sell the books, but I have enough money. I have my Marine retirement and my Social Security. I can live comfortably. It’s OK. I’m not rich, God knows, by any means. The older you get, what do you need? What are you gonna take with you? Nothing. So, what’s the point?
I’ll be 80 years old in two or three months. What do I really care when you get down to it? My time is so limited I’m going to concentrate on those things that I can do, like writing or being with people that I love.
Brenda Pollard assisted with the research for this story.