Durham, N.C. — A Superior Court judge on Monday denied Mike Peterson’s attempt to have the murder charge against him in his wife’s death nearly 15 years ago dismissed, and a new trial in the long-running case has been set for next spring.
Peterson was found guilty in 2003 after one of the longest trials in North Carolina history of killing Kathleen Peterson on Dec. 9, 2001, but the conviction was overturned eight years later when Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson ruled that a key prosecution witness had lied on the stand.
The 73-year-old Durham novelist and one-time mayoral candidate, who has always maintained his innocence, will now be retried in May.
More than 500 pieces of evidence were introduced in the three-month-long murder trial 13 years ago, but Mike Peterson’s attorney says much of it is now in disarray. Defense attorney Mary Jude Darrow says the condition of the evidence prevents her from getting it tested now for DNA or other details that might clear Peterson’s name.
“Our hands are now tied because of what happened to the evidence,” Darrow told Hudson Monday.
Evidence from at least two other cases has been mixed with items from Peterson’s case, and bags that contained some evidence from the Peterson case have been ripped open, with the items strewn about inside boxes in an evidence storage area at the courthouse, Darrow noted in an August court hearing.
Evidence in criminal cases is usually kept in sealed bags with a log of who handled it and when to establish a chain of custody. The chain ensures the evidence hasn’t been tampered with or otherwise contaminated.
“We are stuck with our hands tied behind our back, unable to find out what else might have been or is on Kathleen Peterson’s clothing, and that’s an injustice,” Darrow said.
Tim Palmbach, an associate professor and chairman of the Forensic Science Department at the University of New Haven, said Monday that the results of any tests conducted now on the evidence would be unreliable because of contamination from other sources.
“Once you’ve got a contaminated piece of evidence, then that locks down your, prevents your capacity to have a meaningful analysis interpretation of the data,” said Palmbach, who testified for the defense in Peterson’s 2003 trial.
Under cross-examination, he acknowledged that it was impossible to say when any contamination occurred. Durham County Assistant District Attorney Jim Dornfried played snippets of video from Peterson’s trial to show witnesses and attorneys handling the evidence to suggest that, not how the evidence was stored later, was the source of contamination.
Dornfried said Peterson’s original attorneys could have asked that evidence be tested before the 2003 trial, but Darrow said the State Bureau of Investigation controlled the evidence, so the defense was powerless to conduct its own tests.
“Is it possible to get new DNA evidence in this case at this point in time with the evidence in the condition it’s in?” Darrow asked.
“No,” replied Palmbach, who still stands by his conclusions that Kathleen Peterson died from a fall down a staircase and wasn’t beaten to death.
Peterson’s defense also claims that police focused on him as a suspect and never considered anyone else because he had written several columns for the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper critical of the Durham Police Department.
A special thank you to our friends at WRAL for helping out with this post.