tv Dateline MSNBC January 21, 2018 12:00am-2:00am PST
end. >> it did not look like a fall. >> reporter: michael peterson, under suspicion. then a bombshell revelation about another woman, from his past. >> liz was on the floor, and there was a puddle of blood under the staircase. >> two women that appeared to die the same way. two women associated with michael peterson. >> reporter: what are the odds? >> yeah, what are the odds? >> reporter: at trial, one expert -- >> this is the scene of a beating. >> reporter: -- would make a slam-dunk case for petersen's guilt. >> the jurors were captivated by his testimony. >> reporter: but were his dramatic experiments, legit? >> it's designed to get a result. it's not scientific at all. >> reporter: now, in his only network interview, michael peterson on the twist that might finally lead to the truth. >> the most difficult decision i ever made in my life. >> reporter: a writer at the center of a story even he couldn't make up. i'm lester holt and this is "dateline." here's dennis murphy with "down the back staircase."
>> reporter: you might take him for a retired english professor from one of the universities in the raleigh-durham area. preppy. witty. back when a sparkling storyteller welcome at so many of the best dinner tables. but nowadays in this part of north carolina, michael peterson is known not as the novelist he in fact is, but as that man, the notorious husband, the one with the wife dead at the bottom of the staircase. you were not only the prime suspect, you were the only suspect. >> the only one. >> there was massive amounts of blood. how do you explain it? was this a fall, or was this murder? >> reporter: exactly what did happen on that staircase? and what is the truth about michael peterson? a man once sentenced to die in prison for the commission of a homicide he has always maintained was nothing but an accident. innocent, he asserts, but the
novelist in him knows full well the irresistible appeal of the storyline he says he got swept up in. >> sex, money, murder, my god! what more could you have? >> reporter: tonight, one of the most compelling mysteries we've ever covered as you haven't heard it before. >> the people who believe in you will always believe in you. the people that don't never will. >> reporter: michael peterson in his own words. on the marriage, that fine old house. the blood spatter expert who wasn't. and the family friend found dead in another staircase far away in time and place. >> lightning don't strike in the same place twice. >> reporter: there's even a theory about an owl. >> whooo done it, huh? >> oh, it's just awful. >> reporter: we're going to need some time here. it's both complicated, and a simple question -- so if i were to ask you, as i do right now, did you bludgeon kathleen that night on the stairway of the house and cause her death? >> no. no. no. ♪
>> reporter: let's go back to the night early december 2001, and stroll up the driveway of the gracious, rambling house in one of durham's better neighborhoods. michael and his wife kathleen are out back by the pool, as the story goes, finishing off a bottle of wine. in the living room, the christmas tree is already up, the grown peterson children expected home for the holiday. christmas was big for kathleen. >> oh, good lord. yes. and valentine's day and halloween -- she made a celebration out of everything, everything. >> reporter: kathleen's daughter caitlin, step-daughter to michael, says her mom was always happiest at the holidays. >> she loved christmas. she loved being in the mood, playing christmas music from the start of december all the way through new year's. >> reporter: it was the kids, actually, who brought kathleen and michael together. his first marriage had started to fall apart. she was separated. michael was raising his two boys
and two young girls, margaret and martha. the girls became neighborhood playmates with kathleen's daughter caitlin. >> they played -- oh my god, barbies and those little -- my little ponies and those damn little trolls. all the time, all the time. and then kathleen came over to borrow a book one night. and that's when it began. >> reporter: as the kids spent more and more time together, so did michael and kathleen. it wasn't long before they approached the kids about becoming a family together. >> they sat me down and said, "you know, caitlin, how would you like it if martha and margaret come to live with you?" and i just immediately thought, "a permanent sleepover!" >> reporter: and that's exactly how michael presented it to his two girls. margaret's the older. >> it's really funny. i think he put it, "we're gonna have a long sleepover," and we said, "yeah!" >> reporter: her younger sister, martha. >> of course we want to live with caitlin and kathleen, and play barbies, and, um, be a family together. >> reporter: so michael and his four kids and kathleen and her daughter became a blended
family. he was a former u.s. marine-turned-full- time writer who liked to draw on his wartime experiences in vietnam. one of his vietnam books got a big advance, money that went towards buying that fine house. >> they said, "we're thinking about moving into this house." and they drove us over. we didn't even go inside. we just looked and we thought, "oh, my goodness," you know, "this is amazing." >> reporter: there in his office he wrote his war stories and churned out sharp-elbowed columns on city politics for the local paper. stick in the eye stuff. he'd even been a losing candidate for mayor of durham. kathleen, meanwhile, was a top business exec at nortel, the telecommunications company. she'd received a master's degree in engineering from duke and had even appeared on the cover of a university magazine. >> she was a smart, smart woman. but most of all, she was funny and sexual but had this marvelous sense of life and vitality just --
>> reporter: and you were in the swirl of the local society. right? >> yeah. >> reporter: charity balls and parties and nice dinners. >> yeah. and she did all of this. she -- >> reporter: good, smart friends at your table? >> absolutely. she would invite people over. she cooked meals. and she'd do the desserts. she did it all. >> reporter: so michael was all too happy to say yes when after years of living together, kathleen suggested the couple make it official. >> so we got married. and it was a gigantic wedding. it was in the house. and there must have been 150 people there. and it was just wonderful. >> i always thought, you know, "this is what i'll register as the happiest day of my life." >> reporter: kathleen's younger sister, candace, says kathleen was over the moon, as well. >> she was thrilled to be marrying michael. all three girls were bridesmaids in her wedding. i remember at the wedding the three girls singing, "we're
goin' to the chapel." the day they married, my sister glowed. >> reporter: and candace watched in amazement as, over the next several years, kathleen did it all. >> not only did she raise these children and have a quite accomplished corporate career, oh, dinner for 50? she'd do it. ♪ >> reporter: and so it was on that mild december evening 2001, with kathleen juggling it all. she'd been preparing for the holidays, while fending off the latest crisis at work. michael says she made dinner. they sat down to watch a movie. then, headed out back to enjoy a midnight glass of wine. >> we went to the pool, and we talked. >> reporter: what time would you guess? you're out there 10:00, 11:00 at night? >> well, this was at 11:00, 12:00, something -- something in there. >> reporter: with a morning conference call scheduled, michael says, kathleen turned in first. >> she said, "i gotta go in. i've gotta get ready.
i gotta go to sleep be -- because the conference is first thing in the morning." so she gets up from the pool and goes, "i'll see you later." >> reporter: an hour went by. maybe two. michael says he may have dozed off. when he went back inside the house sometime after 2:00 a.m., there was kathleen at the bottom of the stairs. a ghastly sight. >> and i saw her lying in the back staircase. her feet out. and there was blood. there was just blood everywhere. >> my wife's had an accident. she's still breathing. >> what kind of accident? >> she fell down the stairs. >> reporter: was she breathing? >> she was at the time. >> reporter: she was? >> yeah. >> is she conscious? >> what? >> is she conscious? >> no, she's not conscious. >> i knew she was dying. i mean, i'd seen enough of that in vietnam. i mean, i knew she was dying. >> please, get somebody here right away. please! >> okay, somebody's dispatching the ambulance. >> send the ems right away, right away, right away. called them again. how -- but apparently it's only, like, two minutes later. but it seemed like forever. >> reporter: a long few minutes, but nothing compared to the many, many years of questions that would follow. what had happened on that back
staircase now pooled in blood? >> the answer would be in the eye of the beholder. when we come back, what a husband called an accident an investigator would see very differently. >> i've seen falls. i've had family members fall. and to me, it did not look anywhere like a fall. >> reporter: michael peterson told us he'd come upon the unimaginable. his wife, kathleen, at the bottom of their back staircase, covered in blood. emts saw michael cradling his wife, weeping so hard, he had to be pulled away. >> that was the worst. i mean, -- the worst. i mean, that was worse than turn up your swagger game with one a day men's.
♪ get ready for the wild life a complete multivitamin with key nutrients, plus b vitamins for heart health. your one a day is showing. before people invite something they want to know who you are. we're almond breeze. and we only use california-grown blue diamond almonds in our almondmilk. cared for by our family of almond growers. blue diamond almond breeze. the best almonds make the best almondmilk. you're so cold, come in! what's wrong? it's dry... your scalp? mine gets dry in the winter too. try head and shoulders' dry scalp care
michael peterson told us he'd come upon the unimaginable. his wife, kathleen, at the bottom of their back staircase, covered in blood. emts saw michael cradling his wife, weeping so hard, he had to be pulled away. >> that was the worst. i mean, -- the worst. i mean, that was worse than anything in -- in war, anything, anything, because you expect that. this is entirely different. i had -- i wasn't ready for this at all, at all. >> did anything explain itself to you, michael? as you're looking at her crumpled -- >> she fell down the stairs. somebody's at the bottom of the stairs. your automatic response is, well, she fell down the stairs. >> detective art holland was called to the cedar street mansion in the wee hours. we first spoke to him more than
a decade ago. >> so first officers had already arrived at the peterson house? >> right. first officers arrived. ems were -- arrived. >> reporter: the medical examiner was called in, too. he looked at the victim and said that a fall down the stairs was possible. >> he could see some lacerations or feel some of the lacerations on the back of mrs. peterson's head. and he stated that this could be the result of a fall. >> reporter: by dawn, news of kathleen's fall started rippling through the family. details were still vague when family members reached michael's girls, margaret and martha, at college. >> she said -- um "something's happened." your mom has fallen down the stairs. you know it was an accident. you know, you should come home. >> reporter: by the time kathleen's daughter, caitlin, got the word, it was as shocking as it was definitive. her college roommate delivered the news. >> she looks me straight in my eye and she just says, "caitlin, it's your mom. she's dead." those words still ring clearly in my head. >> reporter: kathleen's sister, candace,
couldn't believe what she was hearing. michael called her directly. >> it was still vague or she -- we couldn't tell if she fell down the stairs or she fell off a ladder, but there was no question i kept saying, "are you sure she's dead?" >> reporter: yes, michael was sure. candace headed to her sister's house. >> the whole thing was sealed off with crime scene tape. and this is a -- this is a mansion, huge property. so the police kept saying, you know you may not want to go in. there's so much blood. this is really awesomely scary. >> reporter: the police were not exaggerating. when candace finally got inside, she says, michael brought her to the back staircase where it happened. >> my sister's blood is washed in pools up against the wall. i mean, her blood was everywhere. >> reporter: the image would be seared in her mind. it didn't look right. she couldn't go there. >> i still wanted to believe it was an accident. i didn't want to think something horrible happened. >> reporter: but all that blood, up the walls, could it all be from a fall down the stairs? and that's precisely what was
gnawing at detective holland. >> i've seen falls. um i've had family members fall and to me it did not look anywhere like -- like a fall. >> reporter: something to him seemed off about kathleen's body position, too. >> her body was definitely not in the position that it would be in if she came to a final resting position after the fall. >> reporter: they processed the scene, photographing the stairwell, documenting the pool of blood and spray up the wall. outside, drops on the walkway and a smear on the front door. in the kitchen, blood stains on a cabinet, and underneath, a drop of blood on the counter. and right beside it, an opened wine bottle and two glasses. >> it was, you know, very, very time consuming. you don't want to, you know, go through it real speedy. you want to make sure that you cross all your ts and dot all your is. >> reporter: it would take investigators a couple of days to go through the 9,000 square foot estate. while they did, michael and the kids took refuge at a neighbor's house.
>> just spent most of the time in bed then -- margaret came in, martha, caitlin, everybody flew in, everybody. >> reporter: he says from the moment the police arrived at the house, they were aggressive towards him and his family. but even in his haze of shock and grief, peterson says, he thought he knew why. >> i had written some really negative comments. i'd -- i'd been a columnist. and i've really, really been hammering the police. >> you -- you -- you lit out at the cops, huh? >> oh many times. >> reporter: his accusations of the city cops ranged from their failure to get a handle on drug trafficking to only solving a small fraction of crimes. >> the chief of police had emailed me just a couple days before saying, "mike, you don't know how much damage you've done to the morale in the police department," and all this. >> if you're seeing the cops giving you and the family some attitude, you think you understand why. >> that's what i thought. sure. sure. i understood it. yeah. of course, they're pissed at me.
[ laughs ] i got -- i got it. >> reporter: but, he says, one of his sons read the police's behavior differently. he thought the police were zeroing in on his father from the get-go. >> he immediately called my brother, his uncle, who is an attorney in reno and said -- "uh uncle bill, kathleen's dead. they think mike did it." >> and my brother got on the phone. and he said, "i'm representing michael peterson, do not talk to him." >> reporter: michael's daughters were also worried. they knew very well their father relished being the provocateur. and now the police were swarming their house. walking the yard. looking under bushes and trees. >> i remember feeling that something was going badly with the police. >> reporter: michael called a family meeting. >> he sat down with us and said, you know, "girls, i don't know what's going on, but it seems bad. and i -- i just want you to know i didn't do anything wrong. i didn't do anything." and we said, "of course, dad, we know."
>> reporter: but police weren't so sure. they seemed intent on peeling away the veneer of the peterson's marriage. what was going on behind the closed doors in the mansion on cedar street? >> they were asking me questions about kathleen and michael's relationship. and if i knew of anything. i thought they were happily married. she was very much in love with him. >> reporter: but the detectives were beginning to believe the perfect marriage was anything but. >> despite that gore journalists house -- gorgeous house, perhaps they weren't rolling in the dow. >> i sensed the stress. i sensed that. >> and what the autopsy revealed. >> that one picture, that was it.
michael peterson says he was certain that his wife, kathleen's death had been a terrible accident. a slip and fall down their back staircase after a night of drinking. but as days passed, he started to realize that not only did police think kathleen's death was a case of murder, but also that he was the prime suspect. >> well, that's just nonsense, and i wasn't worried because when you're innocent, well, nothing can happen. >> reporter: but it was hardly nonsense to detective holland of
the durham police department. from the start, he was investigating not an accident "what's going on in this marriage?" huh? >> right. >> that's a big part of your investigation? >> right. >> reporter: detectives pulled aside kathleen's sister candace to ask if she'd noticed any trouble in her sister's marriage. >> the police took me in a police van to interview me privately. >> reporter: in her grief, candace was hesitant to say anything bad about her now widowed brother-in-law. she'd always liked him. >> he was a fun person to sit and chat with across a dinner table. he was interesting. he's a little bit arrogant about his intelligence, but you know he was a very smart man. when i found out my sister was dead, i was his biggest defender. >> reporter: she told investigators that everything was fine between michael and kathleen. it was only later as she started replaying conversations in her head that she wondered if the couple had been fighting. kathleen certainly seemed stressed.
>> she was very, very concerned about her job stability at her company. and they were making layoffs. >> reporter: according to candace, job insecurity couldn't have come at a worse time. her sister told her the financial pressures on their lives were mounting. she and michael were drowning in credit card debt. and that big house had turned into a money pit. and they'd invested heavily in her company's tech stock, only to lose a bundle when the dotcom bubble burst. then, there were the big college tuition bills. >> we've got three kids going to college, and good colleges, expensive private colleges. >> reporter: kathleen's daughter from her first marriage, caitlin, remembers it, too. >> there was a lot of financial
problems. i sensed it. i sensed the stress of that. >> reporter: and when investigators looked at the couple's credit reports they saw just what kathleen's sister candace feared. >> it was living above their means. i mean, you know, if he wasn't writing a book or had any royalties coming in, he had no income. >> reporter: and, according to kathleen's sister, michael's dabble in local politics had brought even more stress to the marriage. when he ran for mayor, he'd been called out publicly if a lie -- a whopper of one. the war action novelist claimed to have been awarded a purple heart, only he hadn't. he got hurt, not by taking hills in vietnam, but in a car accident in japan. >> when it became public about his lies, it did cause kathleen these friendships. she had to decide whether to stand by michael or keep these friendships, and these friendships were lost. >> reporter: so if the true state of the petersons' marriage was murky, investigators thought the story told in blood was becoming clear. not only was there more of it in the stairwell than detectives would expect to see with a fall, but according to emts, much of it was dry when they arrived. >> so you have to wonder when the victim actually goes down those stairs. >> right, how long she'd been -- actually been there. >> reporter: a blood pattern
expert analyzed the scene. when he completed his initial findings, police suspicions were confirmed. >> he told me that he felt strongly that, um, this was a homicide. >> can you tell us how this has been for you and your family? >> reporter: just a few days before christmas, michael peterson was charged with the murder of his wife. >> they had the grand jury, and, of course, i was indicted. and so, i turned myself in. >> reporter: as the officers booked michael into the county jail, the blended family formed a unified block of support. >> my mother would just be absolutely appalled, and this is the last thing she would ever, ever want to happen to her husband. >> reporter: it was hardly the christmas that the peterson family had so looked forward to. kathleen dead, their father in jail.
>> it was just us kids, you know, in that house by ourselves, you know, trying to piece together a christmas. >> reporter: but soon another bombshell, and this one would blow the family apart. two months after christmas, the coroner released the results of the official autopsy. >> multiple lacerations to the back of her head, it looked like she was bludgeoned to death. severe, long, linear lacerations. >> not consistent with a fall? >> not consistent with a fall. >> reporter: if kathleen's sister candace had been harboring suspicions about what had really happened to her sister, the medical examiner's report was the thing that pushed her over the edge. >> i saw the seven huge lacerations that basically scalped her, she was murdered. that one picture. that was it. >> reporter: after reading the autopsy report herself, kathleen's daughter caitlin agreed with her aunt. she called her step-sister, margaret. >> i said, "you need to read this. you need to understand that mom -- she did not die from falling down stairs, that she
was beaten to death." >> reporter: but caitlin's childhood playmates, her step-sisters margaret and martha, stood strong with their father. >> dad told me that he didn't do it, and i believe him. i trust him. >> reporter: the step-sisters never spoke again. caitlin removed her belongings from the house. >> i've lost, obviously, far more than just my mother. i thought, you know, i -- i did lose martha, and margaret, and michael, my family, my home. >> reporter: could the family agony get any worse? well, it could and by a wide margin because now investigators were picking through michael peterson's past, turning the clock back some 20 years, and taking a peek at his previous life an ocean away. what they would discover was beyond eerie. >> how can michael have found two women dead at the bottom of a staircase? coming up -- >> i go over to the house, and liz is dead. >> dead at the bottom of the stairs? >> bottom of the stairs. >> the story disturbingly familiar, and so were the
suspicions. >> if you fell down the stairs, why would there be blood splurted up the side of the walls? it didn't make any sense to me. ♪ see ya. -take care. ♪ so probably take it at night. and if you have any questions, the instructions are here in spanish as you requested. gracias. ♪ at walgreens, how we care will change over time, but why we care remains the same treating everyone with the care and attention they deserve. walgreens. trusted since 1901. are cream conditioners bringing your hair down? switch to new pantene light as air foam conditioner, full of rich pro-v nutrients. for 100% conditioning,
>> reporter: in police work, a good tip can make your day and also make your life a lot more complicated. just such a tip came to the desk of the detective working the kathleen peterson case. >> i think it was two or three days after kathleen's death is when i first had contact with um the family members of elizabeth ratliff. >> reporter: and just who was elizabeth ratliff? to answer that question we have to turn the clock back almost twenty years in michael peterson's life and go across the atlantic to germany.
in the early 1980's, michael peterson was living with his first wife near a u.s. air force base outside frankfurt. their good friend, elizabeth ratliff, a widow, lived nearby. >> liz has two children. and she's teaching school, has a great many friends who are, you know, all there. >> reporter: on november 24th, 1985, elizabeth went to the petersons for dinner. later, michael peterson says he drove her home. >> she got out and went upstairs. i said, "night, liz, you know, see you tomorrow." >> reporter: the next morning, michael says he was fast asleep when elizabeth's nanny came running with urgent news. >> i'm upstairs in bed. and she's saying something that, in fact, you know, liz is dead or hurt or i don't know. she's screaming. and so i put some clothes on. and i go over to the house. and, in fact, liz is dead. >> reporter: dead at the bottom of the stairs. >> bottom of the stairs.
>> reporter: another good friend in their circle, amybeth berner and her husband, were summoned to elizabeth's townhouse, too. she asked michael what happened. >> he said, "well, she probably had an aneurysm like her father." when i thought about someone falling down the stairs i thought, well, that's possible. those stairs are, you know, pretty steep and, you know, they're slippery and wooden. >> reporter: but amybeth says as she looked around she noticed something. blood not just where elizabeth lay, but high up along the staircase walls, too. too much blood, she thought, for a slip and fall. >> if you fell down the stairs, why would there be blood splurted up the side of the walls?" it didn't make any sense to me. >> reporter: and she says there were household details out of order: like the table that liz set out every night with the girls' breakfast plates. it was bare. the snow boots she routinely left by the front door, still on her feet. >> liz never wore her boots in the house. she'd always took her boots off. and that was another clue to me that something was wrong. it's obvious that she was either running from someone or trying to escape.
>> reporter: amybeth thought a full-fledged investigation would ensue. but, as she tells it, michael peterson spoke to the authorities that day, relating that elizabeth had a hereditary bleeding disorder. perhaps she'd had a stroke and fallen down the stairs. the questions amybeth expected to be asked never were. >> i wondered, you know, "why aren't they talking to people? why aren't they asking questions?" no one did. >> reporter: later that day, michael peterson phoned elizabeth ratliff's family in the u.s. with the dreadful news. margaret blair is elizabeth's sister. >> he said "um margaret, there's been an accident. liz fell down the stairs and died." "what are you saying?" i just totally went numb. i mean, my sister. he's saying she died. she's young. she's got two beautiful little children. babies, really. >> reporter: those baby girls? they are martha and margaret. michael took custody of the girls after the accident in germany.
and then michael, along with his first wife patty, and then later with kathleen, raised them as his own. >> patty was saying that our birth mother was like a sister to her. she was her closest friend in the whole world. and it was said in our mother's will that we would go to mike and patty when they passed away. and, so, dad saw it as his responsibility and took us in. and stay -- we stayed with him for our whole lives. >> reporter: you didn't think, "that's strange, the petersons? who are these people? >> well actually, you know, i can understand how that could happen. this was her world now. liz must love these people and trusted them to the nth degree. >> reporter: elizabeth ratliff's body was flown to texas for burial. at the funeral, margaret was desperate to hear further details from michael peterson about her sister's passing. but to her surprise -- >> michael was very aloof and very strange. >> reporter: did he speak? >> no, he didn't really say a lot at all. he never talked about the -- what happened to liz. >> reporter: but any questions regarding foul play in elizabeth ratliff's death were laid to rest by the results of an
autopsy performed at the u.s. military hospital in germany. elizabeth died, the examiner said, from a brain hemorrhage, natural causes. so the story lay buried for nearly two decades. but when detective art holland heard it, his head spun. >> i was overwhelmed with, you know, here i have two women that appeared to die the same way. two women that are associated with michael peterson. >> reporter: detectives wanted to dig a little deeper. what would they find? coming up -- for investigators, a risky move. >> a lot of people were very antsy about that. >> will it pay off? >> i'm just thinking that my case is getting a whole lot better. i think the reception
for this product is overwhelmingly positive. this toothpaste sensodyne repair & protect can actually repair and protect sensitive teeth. and as long as they brush twice a day, everyday, then they can expect to continually have that reparative layer of protection against sensitivity. sensodyne repair & protect has clinical evidence showing how effective it works. i absolutely think that dentists are going to want to recommend sensodyne repair & protect. ♪
and dulcoease for comfortable relief of hard stools. dulcolax. designed for dependable relief. >> reporter: as time went by, margaret blair had come to accept michael peterson's explanation of her sister's death years before, a tumble down the stairs in a german townhouse. >> i just believed what i was told about the cerebral hemorrhage and, you know, i'm presuming that a doctor had, you know, made this diagnosis. >> reporter: but when she
learned that kathleen had also been found dead at the bottom of a staircase, margaret began wondering anew about how her sister died. she started reaching out elizabeth's old friends from germany. >> when i talked to her friends, i found out that blood had been dripping down the walls. well, that doesn't happen when you have a cerebral hemorrhage. >> reporter: authorities in north carolina were thinking the same thing. if foul play had been involved in elizabeth ratliff's death, it might bolster their case. but the only way to know for sure, they concluded, was to dig up elizabeth's grave. assistant district attorney freda black. >> we decided that it probably would be worthwhile to try to exhume her body to determine whether the findings in germany were accurate or not. >> reporter: to do that, they'd have to get the okay from elizabeth's daughters, margaret and martha. the girls, who believed in their father's innocence as fiercely as they mistrusted the authorities, struggled with the
decision. >> the hardest thing i've ever had to do was to write off on the exhumation of our birth mother. >> reporter: but ultimately, they agreed. >> and i signed off on it because we wanted to be, like, "there is no way this could've happened." like, please look at the evidence. i will do this to -- to free our dad of these accusations. >> reporter: on a beautiful blue sky day, the remains of elizabeth ratliff were exhumed from their resting place in texas. >> ratliff's bodies -- >> reporter: julia sims, of nbc's raleigh-durham affiliate, wral-tv, has been covering the story since the beginning. >> and the bells started tolling right as they started pulling that casket out of the -- the ground. >> hmm. >> a lot of people were very antsy about that, about what they were gonna find. >> reporter: her body was driven to north carolina where it would be studied by the same medical examiner who'd ruled kathleen peterson's death a homicide.
>> there was a risk here wasn't there? if you opened that coffin and found that the authorities in germany had been correct in ruling it a death by natural causes. >> we just decided that it needed to be done. >> roll the dice, basically. >> exactly. >> reporter: the detective peered through a morgue window as the top was pried off elizabeth ratliff's coffin. >> it was so airtight it was hard to use the crank to get the casket to open. once it was raised you could see part of elizabeth ratliff's face and hair. it was remarkable. >> reporter: they were stunned. the body was practically intact. >> her fingernail polish was still on. her dress was still perfectly in place. >> reporter: the m.e. took a closer look at the injuries to elizabeth's head. she was finding lacerations, deep gouges in the scalp. seven of them. >> seven lacerations. you could -- black: it was amazing -- >> count them. >> it was uncanny. the lacerations were very similar to the ones that had
been perpetrated upon kathleen peterson. and in her findings, she made a decision that ms. ratliff had been -- had been murdered. >> reporter: investigators thought they'd hit pay dirt. in death, they thought kathleen peterson and elizabeth ratliff could have been twins. >> i'm just thinking that, that my case is getting a whole lot better. >> reporter: kathleen's sister candace thought that peterson had killed both women. >> i have a better chance of being struck by lightning than finding two people who i intimately know at the bottom of a staircase. >> reporter: but to martha and margaret, the whole thing seemed absurd. the fact that michael was being accused of killing kathleen, the woman they called mom, was bizarre enough. but now, their birth mom, too? what would their father have gained by killing elizabeth ratliff? >> he would've gotten two screaming little ragamuffin kids out of it and that's it? like, there's nothing -- there's no reason for it.
>> reporter: for the investigators in north carolina, though, the death in germany became a strong building block in their circumstantial case for murder. and what's more -- detectives learned that michael peterson had a secret life. secrets -- tawdry ones -- were about to spill out in the durham courthouse. coming up -- enter brad, the male escort. >> what types of services did you perform? >> oh, wow. that's -- that's pretty broad. >> reporter: in the summer of hey, need fast heartburn relief?
try cool mint zantac. it releases a cooling sensation in your mouth and throat. zantac works in as little as 30 minutes. nexium can take 24 hours. try cool mint zantac. no pill relieves heartburn faster. before people invite something they want to know who you are. we're almond breeze. and we only use california-grown blue diamond almonds in our almondmilk. cared for by our family of almond growers. blue diamond almond breeze. the best almonds make the best almondmilk.
>> reporter: in the summer of 2003, michael peterson would stand trial for the bludgeoning death of his wife, kathleen. he'd pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. >> i am innocent of these charges, and we will prove it in court. >> reporter: with gavel-to-gavel coverage on live tv, the state versus michael peterson was a national spectacle. >> was it surreal, michael, to be in a courtroom charged with murder? >> well, it was surreal from the first moment. i mean, you know, is there surreal beyond surreal? i don't know. >> reporter: reporter julia sims covered the proceedings in court.
>> every single day of that trial the courtroom was packed, and not packed with just media, and not packed with just lawyers, but people off the street. people took vacation to come in and watch that trial. >> reporter: and michael peterson didn't shy away from all the attention. in fact, he allowed a documentary crew to film him every step of the way. but the only audience that mattered was the 12-person jury. and when the trial began, the prosecution introduced them to the man behind the professorial mask, the person they saw as the real michael peterson. >> this case is about pretense and appearances. it's about things not being as they seem. >> reporter: scratch beneath the glossy veneer, the beautiful house and sparkling dinner parties, and prosecutors would tell the jury they'd find a marriage in shambles. more than the couple's money problems, more than the loss of social standing after michael got caught out lying about his military record, there was what investigators found when they searched his home office.
>> it was just so -- so different than what everybody that knew michael peterson believed him to be, as far as a family man, a happily married man. it was jaw dropping. >> reporter: while kathleen toiled away at her executive job to pay the couple's mounting bills, michael's writing career was hitting a wall. >> he had some free time on his hands. and we believed that he, somewhere along the way, began to form relationships, let's say, with men that he particularly met on the computer. >> reporter: not women, but men. the prosecution's theory was this -- the night kathleen died, she went into michael's office to retrieve an email about that work conference call the next morning. there in his office, the prosecutors believe, she stumbled upon e-mail exchanges between her husband and an escort. >> the e-mails were very
specific about what they had planned on doing and what they wanted to do with each other. >> reporter: very graphic, steamy stuff? >> they were. >> reporter: the escort's user name? "soldiertop brad." his website pic was a come-hither beefcake pose complete with dog tags. "you have great reviews and i would like to get together" peterson wrote in one e-mail. "i've never done escort but used to pay to blank a super macho guy who played lacrosse." "i'm very bi, and that's all there is to it." >> what type of services did you perform? >> oh wow, that's pretty broad. >> reporter: in a sensational revelation, the prosecution called brad the escort to the stand. >> what type of sexual activities, sir? >> oh, just about anything under the sun. >> reporter: on the witness stand, the escort told the jury that just three-months before kathleen's death, he and michael peterson had arranged to meet. >> we were to hook up. >> and what were you all planning on doing? >> having sex. >> reporter: the hookup never happened, but combine that with the other combustibles in the couple's life, the prosecution said, and you have all the
ingredients for a fatal confrontation. >> it got out of control, and michael peterson snapped. and he was the only one who could have done it, according to the prosecution. >> reporter: further evidence that michael attacked kathleen ferociously, the prosecution stated, was as clear as the spray of blood up the staircase walls. >> the amount of blood, the positioning of the blood, the location of the blood, it was overwhelming. >> in general terms, the greater the force, the smaller the drop. >> reporter: to take the jury vividly up the back stairs, the prosecution called the state's blood pattern expert, duane deaver. he told the jury with certainty that kathleen peterson had been beaten to death. he testified the droplet pattern high up the walls was just what you'd expect to see with a weapon rising, striking, and casting off blood with each new blow. >> and i believe there is a minimum of four blows that have occurred in this, uh -- in this scene.
>> reporter: what's more, deaver testified, this blood stain was found on the inside of peterson's shorts. he'd done tests that he says proved that the only way it could have gotten there was if peterson had been standing over his wife, beating her. >> and the individual wearing these pants at time of that impact was in close proximity to the source of blood when it was impacted. >> i remember the jurors were captivated by his testimony. um, and it all seemed to make perfect sense. >> reporter: then there was all that dried blood the emts noticed around kathleen's body, suggesting she may have been attacked well before peterson called 9-1-1. according to prosecutors, lab tests backed that up. kathleen's head injuries had produced something called red neurons, which they say form after oxygen is withheld from the brain for at least two hours. >> that gives mr. peterson at least two hours to do things before the 9-1-1 call is placed. >> reporter: what was he doing during all that time? the state argued he was staging
the scene. detectives saw what they thought were wipe marks on the stairs. to them, it was an attempt at a clean up. and there were those two wine glasses on the kitchen counter suggesting an evening of maybe too much drink, followed by a tumble down the stairs. thing was, kathleen's fingerprints weren't on either glass. in fact, the prosecution said, kathleen's blood-alcohol content was low enough that she could have passed a roadside breathalyzer test. >> she wasn't drunk. she wasn't intoxicated. um, she did have a little in her system. but not enough, arguably, to have caused her to not be able to walk up stairs. >> reporter: was the writer of fiction, making up yet another story, covering up murder as an accident? but, if kathleen was bludgeoned to death as prosecutors thought,
your one a day is showing. before people invite something they want to know who you are. we're almond breeze. and we only use california-grown blue diamond almonds in our almondmilk. cared for by our family of almond growers. blue diamond almond breeze. the best almonds make the best almondmilk. you're so cold, come in! what's wrong? it's dry... your scalp? mine gets dry in the winter too. try head and shoulders' dry scalp care it nourishes the scalp and... ...keeps you up to 100% flake free head and shoulders' dry scalp care
>> i'd seen falls. it did not look like a fall. >> prosecutors have charged kathleen's husband michael with murder, telling the jury about his connection to another suspicious stairway death 20 years earlier in germany. >> do you really believe that lightning strikes twice in the same place? do you? >> now, michael peterson sits down with us to refute the prosecution's case. including that other supposedly damn death. >> they said, my god, there was blood everywhere. well, no. the german police didn't see any blood. the american military didn't see any blood. >> and then a clash outside the courtroom. >> pleading guilty -- >> actually, we're not -- >> you're pleading guilty. >> here again, dennis murphy. >> reporter: the state's case lasted more than two months.
lasted more than two months. and each day, michael peterson's girls, margaret and martha, sat in court, suffering as prosecutors labeled their dad a killer. >> they would accuse my father of double murders, or the wife murder, or the staircase murders? >> and we couldn't stand up and say, "wait a second. this isn't true." >> reporter: michael peterson did not testify at his trial but he did sit down with us recently to answer questions about all the evidence against him, nothing was off limits. >> i know i did not kill kathleen. so at a certain point, you think, well, this is just -- crazy. >> reporter: to understand the case, he says, you have to go back to the very beginning, to the moment police arrived at the is scene and recognized him as the same michael peterson who liked to publicly criticize them in the local paper. >> you think the cops had it in for you, that's what set this in the motion? >> oh absolutely, no question about that. >> that framed the narrative. >> they were delighted that something really bad had happened and would've been even more delighted if i had anything to do with it. >> reporter: michael says the prosecution theory of what
happened that night is total fiction. starting with the trigger, that explosive fight he and kathleen supposedly had after she saw those emails in his home office. >> so the prosecution version of this evening you were described as that she goes to your office, logs in. and then lo and behold, there's the traffic from brad, the escort. >> that's it exactly. oh, i don't -- dennis murphy: >> he's not only cheating on me. he's cheating on me with a guy. >> right. that was one of their theories. >> reporter: but just a theory. michael points out that the prosecution never offered proof that kathleen saw anything compromising that night. >> so this whole story about she stumbled on this information. >> oh yeah. no. absolutely not. of course not. >> reporter: michael insists the supposed fight never happened, though he doesn't deny he did try to set up that sexual encounter. in fact, he readily admits a sexual interest in both women and men. >> so you are bisexual? >> yeah. >> i first knew this when i was maybe 11. i was madly in love with this girl, oh --
melanie grant. and it was during some masturbatory fantasy that certainly there was melanie. but then there was this -- the shortstop on my ball team. and it's like, whoa, wait a minute. >> how did -- how did he get a part in this fantasy, huh? >> where did this one come from? i'd never had a male -- man-on-man, male thought in my life. >> reporter: throughout his marriage to kathleen, michael admits he did seek male companionship from time to time. but says it by no means affected his feelings for his wife. >> did i want a boyfriend? no. um did i want to spend the night with one? did i wanna cuddle? did i wanna have a candlelit diner? no. never. never. never. for me, it was strtly sex. had nothing to do with love or a relationship. >> reporter: moreover, michael says his interest in men wasn't exactly hush-hush in the family. perhaps kathleen had a hunch. this is not a family secret? >> no.
no. my sons -- no. it's not. it's not. >> was it known to kathleen, michael? >> i think it was one of these things that was not discussed but known. it was -- >> don't ask, don't tell? >> yeah. exactly. and of course, when i was growing up, there wasn't any don't ask, don't tell. it was don't, period. >> had she known that there were assignations, that there were hookups, what did -- how do you think she would've taken it? >> i wish i had told her. i mean, that's one my regrets -- regrets. i wish i -- we had discussed it. we didn't. i was afraid not that she would leave me, she wouldn't -- that she just wasn't -- she was the most open-minded, liberal, intelligent woman. >> reporter: as for the other piece of the prosecution's motive, that the petersons were on the edge of financial ruin -- >> oh, that was bull. >> a lot of money out on cards. >> total -- >> expensive schools that were bleeding them. the wonderful house was something of a money pit. what's your reaction to all of that stuff? >> well, my reaction is exactly what the prosecution proved.
>> reporter: in court, the financial expert who testified about their debts also noted that in the end the petersons were still worth $1.5 million dollars. >> i had money. and it's not a matter -- it was not a financial problem. >> reporter: but what about that dramatic trial-within-a-trial the jury had seen? michael, implicated in not one murder, but two -- that friend, elizabeth ratliff's, death long ago in germany. so there you are in the court of public opinion this guy with two important women in your life and they're both dead in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. >> exactly. absolutely. has to be guilty. >> you're a writer of fiction. your editor would probably take that kind of coincidence out of the book. >> well, he would say, "well, you know, come up with another one." she died in the bathtub or something. but-- no. >> but you're not immune to the irony of this, huh? >> no. of course not. but at the time -- >> because in -- in the course of this investigation -- >> didn't even occur to me. honest to god, it never even occurred to me. >> did you kill her? >> liz? no. of course not. >> reporter: and those witnesses who said elizabeth ratliff's blood was all over the staircase
walls, michael insists their memories are wrong. >> they said, "my god, there was blood everywhere." and, well, no. there wasn't. the german police didn't see any blood. the german doctor didn't see any blood. the american military didn't see any blood. why didn't they see any blood? and if you saw all this blood, why didn't you say something at the time to someone? >> reporter: he is certain elizabeth ratliff died of a stroke. as for how his wife, kathleen, died years later, michael can't say for sure. but he thinks his first instinct was the right one. >> i guess maybe i'm the last person to believe it. i think she fell down the stairs. i don't know. >> reporter: michael believes alcohol must have played a role in her fall, and even though her blood alcohol levels weren't off the charts, he says, there may have been another contributing factor. a few months before her death, she'd suffered an injury diving into their swimming pool. and her doctor put her on several prescription meds. >> do you remember her being wobbly in the weeks that
followed? >> oh, my god, yeah. she had to wear a neck brace. she -- they put her on percocet to begin with. then they brought valium. she was on flexeril which is, apparently, a muscle relaxant -- oh yeah. she was in a great deal of pain all the time. >> reporter: for michael peterson, the trial was hard enough to bear, but the family spilt made it even worse. there was kathleen's daughter, caitlin, across the room in the prosecution's camp. and behind him the whole time, his girls, margaret and martha. >> they were sisters. they loved one another. they helped one another. and that's been the biggest, to me, the sadness that everything that kathleen wanted to make happen and did happen as far as the family was torn asunder. >> reporter: michael's story is one he says those closest to him have known for years. >> that information -- >> reporter: a story his lawyers were about to present to the jury. and they had an ace up their sleeve, a moment straight out of "perry mason."
>> reporter: what had happened on that back staircase? from almost the moment he was retained, defense attorney david rudolf thought michael peterson was innocent. >> no one thought michael could've ever harmed kathleen. and indeed, there was never a shred of evidencthat they had ever had so much as a loud argument. >> reporter: in court, he laid out a straightforward scenario for the jury. >> the truth is that kathleen
peterson, after drinking some wine and some champagne and taking some valium tried to walk up a narrow, poorly lit stairway in flip-flops and she fell and she bled to death. >> reporter: just as the prosecution had, the defense put the couple's marriage front and center. telling the jury it was more or less perfect. >> everywhere they went, people noticed. michael looking at kathleen with the kind of pride that you just don't fake. >> reporter: under cross-examination, even brad the escort said peterson had told him how much he loved his wife. >> in his e-mails unlike most of my clients he indicated that he had a great relationship. most clients don't want to say anything about the relationship. he indicated he had a warm relationship with his wife and nothing would ever destroy that. >> reporter: michael hadn't killed kathleen, the defense argued, and he certainly didn't kill family friend, elizabeth ratliff. they called their own medical expert who reviewed her autopsy
reports and said it wasn't a murder. >> is blood in all of the ventricles of the brain consistent with a stroke from natural causes? expert: it is consistent. >> reporter: then, there was the mount everest of the case: the forensics, explaining to the jury all that blood in the peterson stairwell. >> the defense would call dr. henry lee to the stand. >> reporter: the defense called celebrity forensic expert dr. henry lee, of o.j. case fame, to show the jury in theatrical fashion just how kathleen, falling, then staggering about, coughing up blood, could have accounted for the spray. >> an injured person can walking, can move, can shake their head. >> obviously, the blood all around was due to her being alive and moving around for some period of time. it didn't have to do with what inflicted the wounds. >> reporter: the blood on his shorts, that could have happened, thdense said, while michael peterson was
cradling his wife. the fact that some othe blood was dry when first responders arrived, well, michael never said he knew what time kathleen fell. and as for those drops of blood in the house and on the walkway outside suggesting he staged the scene, the defense said none of that could be trusted. >> the blood in that area had been completely altered. the scene at the house had been completely contaminated. >> reporter: but what about those ghastly lacerations on kathleen's head which the state's medical examiner attributed to a beating? defense attorney rudolf notes what he didn't find: though the cuts were deep, there were no skull or bone fractures. >> there was absolutely no fractures anywhere. no fractures to her fingers, to her arms to her skull. and there was absolutely no injury to the brain. and that's just almost an impossibility if what you're doing is beating somebody with a metal object.
>> reporter: and for a final exclamation point, the defense had a "perry mason" moment up its sleeve. the prosecution had insisted throughout the murder weapon used to bludgeon kathleen peterson was the fireplace blowpoke, only police never found it. almost three months into the trial, one of michael's sons made a stunning discovery in the peterson's basement. >> he immediately runs up to margaret who was at the house and said, "margaret, i think i -- i -- i think i found the blowpoke." >> reporter: the film crew following michael's team for their documentary, "the staircase," was there the day it happened. >> and they look at it. and that's the blowpoke hidden in the corner sort of buried behind something, covered with
cobwebs, dirt, bugs, everything, >> that's a blow poke isn't it? >> reporter: in court, the defense played the moment for all it was worth. >> it appears to be. >> did i ever think he was capable of murdering my sister? no. did i know he'd already found another woman dead at the bottom of a staircase? no. did i know he lied about his military awards? no. he's a writer of fiction, and that's what i found. he makes things up as he goes to suit the situation. >> reporter: when the case went to the jury, three days passed without a verdict. finally on day four -- >> they came out and one of them said, you know, "we have a verdict." your heart stops. >> reporter: a hush, then, the clerk began to read -- >> we the twelve members of the jury, unanimously find the defendant to be guilty of first-degree murder. >> it's guilty.
and i just -- >> as soon as we heard the first juror say, "guilty" i was just was weeping, like i was like being taken over by grief and shock. >> is there anything you would like to say before the court imposes judgment. >> i'd like to say -- >> reporter: michael peterson turned to his kids -- >> he said, "it's okay. it's okay." i think on his part he was just trying to calm himself down but also i think he felt like his role was to protect us. >> i was the only continuity in their life. and just to see them and i thought, hey, it's -- you know, it's -- it's okay. and i could. and i could do it. >> reporter: michael peterson turned back to face the judge for the reading of the sentence. >> the defendant is imprisoned in the north carolina department of corrections for the remainder of his natural life without the benefit of parole. >> i believed that michael was innocent. i continue to believe michael is innocent.
uh, and i thought we won that trial. so when that guilty verdict came out -- i was pretty devastated. >> reporter: for kathleen's sister, candace, the verdict was nothing to celebrate. >> it makes me cry. cried when i heard it. i mean, i was happy we were getting justice. but there's no joy in this. there's -- there's just great sadness. >> reporter: the peterson children resigned themselves to the harsh reality that prison was now their father's home. they sold the dream house on cedar street, and tried to get on with their lives. they visited their dad whenever they could. >> i would just sob every time i left. you hold it together for dad because why would you cry in front of dad? that's not gonna help him. but then, when you leave, you know, you're sobbing in your car. >> reporter: they watched his lawyer file a series of failed appeals. >> we would have hope for every single appeal. and every single time, it would get beaten down. >> reporter: his case went all
the way up to the north carolina supreme court, and was rejected. but michael says he never lost hope. >> i told everybody. i am not going to die in prison. >> reporter: the odds were certainly stacked against him. but then, life can take some very strange twists and turns. coming up, a wild, new theory about what happened to kathleen. >> the owl flew down and landed on kathleen's head. >> and the fresh evidence backing it up. >> you have to magnify them 400 times just to see them. ♪ see ya. -take care. ♪ so probably take it at night. and if you have any questions, the instructions are here in spanish as you requested. gracias. ♪ at walgreens, how we care will change over time,
but why we care remains the same treating everyone with the care and attention they deserve. walgreens. trusted since 1901. are cream conditioners bringing your hair down? switch to new pantene light as air foam conditioner, full of rich pro-v nutrients. for 100% conditioning, 0% weight. new pantene. foam conditioner. pain from chest congestion can make this... when you have a cold, ...feel like this. all-in-one cold symptom relief from tylenol®, the #1 doctor recommended pain relief brand. tylenol®. hi, i'm the internet! you knoarmless bowling.lt? ahhhhhhhh! you know what's easy? building your website with godaddy.
>> reporter: there are pleasant places to idle away your golden years, but north carolina's nash correctional institution isn't one of them. but that's where michael peterson, father, novelist and wife-killer, according to a jury of his peers, was incarcerated. just another number in a cell block with other felons. >> no parole, life without parole. and they meant it, too. they did. and they did everything they could to make that happen. >> reporter: after he'd exhausted his appeals, it looked as though prison was where he would stay. but out in nevada, michael has a look-a-like younger brother, bill peterson, who's also an attorney. >> did the lawyer in you say, "that's it. my" -- >> no. >> -- "brother's done?" >> that's when the really hard work started.
we were out of money, out of lawyers. and, so, that's when the burden fell on me and whoever would help me. >> reporter: bill peterson spent hours in the durham county courthouse combing though the district attorney's piled high boxes of evidence. was there something that had been overlooked? and he wasn't the only supporter nursing alternate theories of kathleen peterson's death. there is a neighbor on cedar street, an attorney, who had an intriguing idea for what he believes happened that night. his scenario of an accidental death has come to be known as the "owl theory." >> he's seen owls in the area. he thought that this was very plausible. he put together this whole theory himself. >> reporter: so here's how the neighbor's theory goes, according to brother bill. kathleen, who has spent the day putting up christmas decorations, goes out front that night while michael is back by the pool. she's checking on her lawn display beneath the trees. >> the owl flew down and landed on kathleen's head and then tore her scalp in a manner that would
be consistent with the lacerations that were found on her scalp. >> reporter: bleeding, kathleen leaves drops on the walk and a smear on the door as she struggles into the house, getting only as far as the staircase where she joins the defense's depiction of falling, passing out, coming to, and rising again only to fall for the final time. the owl theory was not completely new. it had been floated years earlier. >> the cops were making a big joke out of this. they put a picture of the owl on their on their most wanted list. >> reporter: and back then without any rensic "owl" evidence, the defense didn't want to confuse the jurors. so the peterson jury never did hear about an owl theory. but five years into peterson's sentence, the neighbor who was advocating for it was still looking for something to back it up, and sure enough, there it was in the original case notes file. a mention of a feather! >> you have to magnify them 400 times just to see them.
>> reporter: tim thompson, owner of associated microscopes , was asked by the neighbor to examine a slide of that feather. >> they grow under the claws of an owl. when they attack something, they leave behind these small particle feathers. >> reporter: thompson peered through his microscope, studying bloody strands of hair found clutched in kathleen peterson's hand. tangled in the hair were not one but two minute bird feathers. a surprise he says to the detectives and an assistant da watching in the room. >> i think they were surprised because of the lab had not found the second feather. >> bill peterson was interested in the results, too. a review of the slides showed what? traces of bird feather? >> yes. yes. exactly right. in her hair. another very, very compelling fact. >> reporter: what was most compelling about the idea that an owl attacked kathleen, the supporters thought, was how it
accounted for the distinctive lacerations on her scalp. had the three main talons of an owl, like these, caused th bleeding head wound when it swooped down symmetrical tears. >> we had an ornithologist who said thyself -- said these tears are consistent with an owl claw. >> you think of the characteristic trident like talon claws? >> yes, and as we all know scalp wounds cause plenty of bleeding. that she panicked. obviously, you'd run in the house to get away from the owl. that she did and ran down the stairwell. >> reporter: and if an owl attacking humans sounds like so much urban legend, don't tell that to byron unger. he owned a company about 20 miles away from the peterson home. he was leaving work with his manager one night when an owl swooped down from the trees and swiped his colleague on the head. this surveillance camera caught the entire freakish event. and if that weren't strange enough, it happened to byron himself just two weeks later. >> i've never been hit so hard by something it felt like a
baseball bat knocked me probably five feet to the ground. >> knocked you. >> on the ground, scattered me on the ground. i was bleeding so bad i thought i lost my eye. >> reporter: his wife, waiting for him in the car, dialed 9-1-1. >> they didn't believe my wife. they thought we were crazy when they said, "my husband's been attacked by a bird or an owl." >> show me where on your head you think it got you. >> the talons got me right here into my eye a little bit, and all the way up in my hair really bad. all this was black and blue. my whole side of my face and all up in here was hit by talons. >> reporter: is that what happened to kathleen peterson? but critics see problems with the idea that an owl attacked kathleen. problems like, why isn't there more of a trail of blood from the front door to the staircase? and wouldn't michael have heard kathleen being attacked? kathleen's sister candace doesn't believe it for an instant. >> i'm supposed to believe an owl ripped her apart? there is no ripping on her arms of an owl's talons. the thing is so ludicrous. >> reporter: and even michael peterson understands the skepticism. whooo done it, huh?
>> oh, it's just awful. >> reporter: but he says the evidence is worth considering. >> there are feathers. and where were they, in kathleen's hand, so -- >> with strands of her hair. >> with strands of her hair. does that mean an owl did it? i don't know. >> what do you think? >> well, it's a much greater possibility -- ripe i'm surprised to hear -- >> that i did it -- >> reporter: i'm surprised to hear you saying it's not as ludicrous as everybody made it. >> no, no, no. i -- because i -- i've seen the photographs. so, is it possible? well, certainly it's possible. i don't know. did an owl do it? i can't tell you that. >> reporter: in the summer of 2009, peterson's attorney neighbor helped him file a motion requesting a new trial based on the owl theory. but the trial judge dismissed it. the owl theory was dead in court but lives on still in the court of public opinion. >> there were people a lot smarter than me who absolutely convinced that this is what happened. >> reporter: so with the motion denied, with the owl hooted out of court, it really did seem finally to be the last chapter for the novelist.
but a development was in store that would call the heart of the case into question, and no one, not even michael peterson, could have seen it coming. coming up, dramatic revelations about the scientific evidence against peterson. did the blood expert manipulate one of his experiments? >> his assistant does little jig. >> reporter: a happy end zone dance? >> exactly. >> reporter: by 2010, seven i think the reception for this product is overwhelmingly positive. this toothpaste sensodyne repair & protect can actually repair and protect sensitive teeth. and as long as they brush twice a day, everyday, then they can expect to continually have that reparative layer of protection against sensitivity. sensodyne repair & protect has clinical evidence showing how effective it works. i absolutely think that dentists are going to want to recommend sensodyne repair & protect. ♪
trust #1 doctor recommended dulcolax. use dulcolax tablets for gentle dependable relief. suppositories for relief in minutes. and dulcoease for comfortable relief of hard stools. dulcolax. designed for dependable relief. i don't want to lie down. i refuse to lie down. why suffer? stand up to chronic migraine with botox®. botox® is the only treatment for chronic migraine shown to actually prevent headaches and migraines before they even start. botox® is for adults with chronic migraine, 15 or more headache days a month each lasting 4 hours or more. it's injected by a doctor once every 12 weeks. and is covered by most insurance. effects of botox® may spread hours to weeks after injection, causing serious symptoms. alert your doctor right away, as difficulty swallowing, speaking, breathing,
eye problems, or muscle weakness can be signs of a life -threatening condition. side effects may include allergic reactions, neck and injection site pain, fatigue, and headache. don't take botox® if there's a skin infection. tell your doctor your medical history, muscle or nerve conditions, and medications, including botulinum toxins, as these may increase the risk of serious side effects. with the botox® savings program, most people with commercial insurance pay nothing out-of-pocket. talk to your doctor and visit botox®cmsavings.com to enroll. >> reporter: by 2010, seven years after michael peterson's conviction, his daughter martha had given up hope that her father would ever be released from nash correctional institution. >> dad was probably going to be in prison until he died. this was a reality that was never gonna to change. >> reporter: but in michael's cell block, an interesting story was circulating.
a series of articles had been published in raleigh's "the news & observer" alleging misconduct at the state bureau of investigation's crime lab, the sbi. >> in prison, you don't really care much about international affairs or political, they don't have any effect. that the sbi who -- who were behind many guys being in there. oh, they're under investigation. oh, we cared about that. >> reporter: it turns out one of the experts at the center of the storm is a name you've heard before, special agent duane deaver. remember him? >> my opinion is that this is scene of a beating. >> reporter: he was a star witness for the prosecution in the peterson trial, the blood pattern expert who put michael peterson in the staircase bludgeoning his wife, reporter julia sims. you talked to the jurors here in this case, julia. how important was the blood expert, deaver's testimony? >> that blood evidence was critical. here's a guy who has boon -- been doing this for years for the state. look at what his experiment
showed. it's got to be the truth. >> reporter: he'd been key in other cases, too. the newspaper recounted the story of a man who was sent to prison for murder after deaver's lab report suggested a stain on the man's car was the victim's blood. >> and it turned out not to be blood. >> wasn't blood at all. >> huh-uh, no. >> and deaver knew, and didn't disclose it? >> deaver knew that that was not blood and didn't disclose it. >> reporter: that man's conviction was overturned. >> gregory f. taylor is innocent of the charge of first-degree murder. >> reporter: and there was more evidence of questionable conduct linked to deaver. the newspaper investigation suggested that the methodology behind some of the blood pattern experiments he was involved in was flawed, designed to produce pro-prosecution results. like this test conducted for a 2009 murder case. deaver, videotaping the experiment, was attempting to match a blood stain on the shirt of the accused. >> oh, even better.
holy cow. that was a good one. >> that's a wrap baby. >> that's a wrap? >> that's a wrap. >> just like the movies. >> right. >> reporter: peterson's attorney, dave rudolf, says it does not look to him like objective science. >> they come to the belief that someone is guilty. they don't have the -- the evidence that they think they need to convict the person, and so they make it up. >> reporter: rudolf signed back on to michael's case, this time without pay, and began to dig. he discovered that at the peterson trial, duane deaver had not been truthful about his professional experience on the stand. >> he said he had been involved in 500 cases, involving blood spatter. >> reporter: was that true? >> no. in fact, he had been involved in 54 cases. he said he had written 200 reports involving blood spatter analysis. not true. he said that he had been to the scenes of falls 15 times. in fact, he had never been to a scene of a fall. >> reporter: what's more -- remember deaver's conclusion at the trial that the blood stain
on peterson's shorts proved he had been standing over his wife beating her. >> the individual wearing these pants at the time of that impact was in close proximity to source of blood when it was impacted. >> reporter: turns out he'd conducted an experiment pre-trial, and it was videotaped, too. watch. on the second attempt, peterson says it looks as though deaver and another agent got the results they wanted. >> his assistant does a little jig. oh. >> a little happy end zone dance? >> yeah. exactly. exactly. >> we got him. >> got you -- gotcha moment. >> reporter: when peterson's brother bill saw the experiment videos, he couldn't believe it. >> it's all reverse-engineered stuff. it's all designed to get a result. to me, it's not scientific at all. >> reporter: for michael's defense, the implication was clear. the jury had been duped. after all, in its closing argument, the state had even played on deaver's credibility to try to secure a conviction. >> then you're just going to have to believe that
duane deaver is just a liar. and he has no reason in the world to come up here and lie to you. >> who are you gonna trust? duane deaver? of course, he would never lie. well, it turns he had -- he did lie. >> reporter: defense attorney rudolf filed a motion asking for a new trial. and the judge, this time, was ready to listen. coming up, yet another jolt for michael's children. >> i was weeping with shock. >> and a critical decision that could change everything. >> well, that's just not going to happen. i won't do it. hey, need fast heartburn relief?
try cool mint zantac. it releases a cooling sensation in your mouth and throat. zantac works in as little as 30 minutes. nexium can take 24 hours. try cool mint zantac. no pill relieves heartburn faster. before people invite something they want to know who you are. we're almond breeze. and we only use california-grown blue diamond almonds in our almondmilk. cared for by our family of almond growers. blue diamond almond breeze. the best almonds make the best almondmilk. i just want to find a used car start at the new carfax.com show me used trucks with one owner. pretty cool.
>> reporter: a decade after he was arrested for killing his wife, kathleen, an older-looking michael peterson was back in a north carolina courtroom arguing for a retrial on the grounds that the state's crucial blood pattern expert had given false testimony against him. but as far as kathleen's sister, candace, was concerned, prison was where peterson deserved to rot. >> my sister's dead for eternity. oh, no, no, no. he murdered my sister. he took the prime of her. he needs to be held accountable for what he did. >> reporter: at the hearing, the judge gave candace a chance to address the court.
>> agent deaver lied to this court and our jury not once or twice, but repeatedly. >> reporter: and with the peterson supporters holding their breath, the same judge who'd presided over the murder trial now laid out his thinking point by point, rhetorical questions -- >> is a new trial required for newly discovered evidence, due process violations, and for perjured testimony? >> reporter: and there it was. michael peterson's conviction was tossed out. his family was overwhelmed. >> i was weeping with joy and shock and could not believe that there was hope. >> i was like, "my dad's getting out. we're gonna have our dad back." >> reporter: for the peterson children, now there was only joy. >> lots of hugs. lots of -- happy, happy photographs. so we're all, like, jumping up into the air in a silly picture of just so -- so happy. >> reporter: twenty-four hours after the judge issued his decision sharply criticizing the blood pattern expert's work on the case, 68-year-old michael peterson was released on a $300,000 bond.
i imagine you remember the day, hour and date. >> i do. december the 15th. oh, my kids are there. oh my god. my grandson had been born, a sweet little baby. and, you know, i go out and i hold, crying of course. yeah. it was wonderful. >> reporter: you were meant to die in prison. you were going to be fitted for -- >> that was the plan, absolutely. >> reporter: and now, you're outside. >> and now, i'm out. i have wait over eight years. 2,988 days, as a matter of fact -- and i counted -- for the opportunity to have a retrial. i want to thank judge hudson for giving me that opportunity so that i can vindicate myself and prove my innocence in a fair trial this time. >> reporter: so michael peterson was out of prison, but not exactly free. the state had promised to try him for murder again and he was
placed under house arrest. his every move monitored by an electronic ankle bracelet. but that hardly mattered to his girls, margaret and martha. for them, the dark cloud that lay over the family name for nearly a decade had lifted. >> "we're part of the peterson family. and we are not afraid to say it." we so were stigmatized before, you know, and, like, hiding it. >> reporter: still, the second trial loomed. but working in michael's favor was the fact that the prosecutor would have to try a very different much weaker case. duane deaver had been fired from his job and some of the state's critical blood evidence would be inadmissible. >> i think their case is very, very badly compromised because of deaver. he was all over the crime scene. >> reporter: and there was another important victory for peterson's side. >> what types of services did you perform? >> oh wow, that's -- that's pretty broad. >> reporter: brad, the male escort, a sensational centerpiece of the prosecution's case, wouldn't be part of a second trial either, a judge said.
the escort had been revealed in a search that was deemed illegal. >> the search warrant that resulted in the seizure of the computer was found to be invalid. >> reporter: furthermore, that dramatic trial within a trial about michael's long-dead friend in germany? well, a change in north carolina state law regarding the admissibility of evidence meant a second jury might not hear that story either. >> the male escort is gone, the death in germany is gone, the expert blood testimony is gone. you're left with the autopsy pictures. >> reporter: yeah? >> the medical examiner's testimony. and maybe the prosecution's theory for motive. is that enough? >> reporter: the stars seemed to be aligning for michael peterson. perhaps vindication was at hand. but one final twist was on the way. >> i said, "well, that's just not going to happen. i would go back to prison before that happens. i won't do it. coming up, michael makes a
>> reporter: michael peterson's days in the mansion on cedar street were long gone. as he awaited trial number two, he passed his days in a durham condo writing about his experiences in prison. meanwhile the prosecution was forging ahead, a new trial was scheduled for this spring. as it got closer, the reality hit daughters martha and margaret hard. >> and that was actually devastating for me, it was pretty much a nightmare to live the first trial, and to have to go through that a second time would be even worse of a nightmare. >> i can't go through that again. i can't go through another guilty verdict.
>> reporter: kathleen's sister, candace, knew a second murder trial would dredge up all the pain again. but there was no way that she was backing down. >> i have to relive how my sister died. she died one of the worst, worst ways. she was beaten and she knew the person who she loved was beating her. >> there is no way i'm not going to get justice for her. >> reporter: but there was one other option that could avoid a trial -- something that had been floated a few years earlier. the d.a. and the defense could hammer out a plea deal whereby peterson could walk away with time served. but the negotiations went nowhere. >> and candace, no. under no circumstances. he must stand up and say, "he's guilty." and i said, "well, that's just not gonna happen. that will never happen ever ever, i would go back to prison before that happens. >> reporter: so it seemed the hopelessly divided families were destined to face off again on opposite sides of a north carolina courtroom all these
years later. >> the district attorney was one hundred percent willing to go to trial, they felt they had a strong case. >> reporter: but as the trial approached, michael found himself rethinking a possible plea deal and how it would affect his family. >> and im all the time thinking, you got some responsibility. i got two grandsons now, four and six. do i wanna drag this out for a couple more years? no. >> so you didn't -- you didn't wanna spin that wheel again, huh? >> exactly. my son -- clayton's the one who said it perfectly. he said, "dad, you're playing a game at a crooked table. you're never going to win. the odds are against you. pick up your chips, and go home. >> reporter: and so that's what michael peterson agreed to do. >> i was a little surprised we were preparing to go to trial again then the district attorney said he had heard from michael peterson's attorney and they wanted to make a plea. and that was wow, he's going to say the word guilty? ok. we'll take the plea. >> reporter: well, it was a little complicated. peterson was going to take what's referred to as an alford plea.
>> an alford plea is when you don't admit guilt, but you acknowledge there is enough evidence there that a jury could convict you. in the books, it goes down as a guilty plea. >> reporter: this past february, 73-year-old michael peterson arrived at the durham county courthouse for what would be the final chapter of this saga. he was there to take an alford plea -- pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. kathleen's daughter caitlin came to durham to see it happen. >> reporter: and of course kathleen's sister candace was there. she ran into michael's chief defender outside the courthouse. >> oh david, good to see you today. pleading guilty. pleading guilty. thank you that's what i've always wanted. >> actually we're not pleading guilty. >> you're pleading guilty. alford schmalford. guilt. >> michael peterson, he'd like to walk around and proclaim his innocence, but he can't. he can play with words but he can't play with the facts. >> reporter: the courtroom was
eerily reminiscent of the 2003 trial, packed with tv cameras. >> everybody's a little bit older, but there's so much that's the same. the emotion, the tension, the anger, all of it was still there. >> how does mr. peterson plead to charge of voluntary manslaughter? >> he enters a plea of guilty pursuant to alford. >> mr. peterson you're pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. that's a class d felony. do you understand, sir? >> yes, sir. >> and do you now personally plead guilty pursuant to the alford cas >> yes, sir. that's -- was the most difficult decision i ever made in my life was to take the alford plea. >> and that's gonna give kathleen's family an opportunity for what they call the victim impact statement -- >> right. >> michael peterson you are pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. you will be treated as guilty for murdering my sister kathleen. and you will be a convicted felon forever.
>> it was very cathartic to say, ahh, this is what i fought for. we weren't quitting until we heard the word guilty. we thought we were going to hear it from another 12 jurors but we got to hear michael say guilty. michael peterson, not only can you wear the scarlet letter a for adultery but also the black letter g for guilty. not perfect justice but justice. >> reporter: michael peterson was sentenced to time served. his daughters say that at long last they can properly grieve kathleen's death together. >> i think a big piece that's importance to our family is to be able to say goodbye to mom. and to be able to -- honor her memory and let her go in peace. >> reporter: and they have accepted that their father is once again a convicted felon, but a free man who still maintains his innocence. >> so your plea allows you to take the position you've taken all these years, michael. >> exactly. >> and yet, on the ledgers of the criminal justice system,
you're -- >> guilty of manslaughter. >> reporter: it's an ending that neither side had hoped for, a family saga with so much love and so much loss. an imperfect conclusion. all of a sudden, i realized, what's going on? why are they late? something definitely was wrong. he said, your family was in an accident. and my whole world just dropped out from underneath me. >> the scene told the story. >> what did you find? >> something i don't want to see again. >> a deadly crash on a dark road, two gone, one barely alive. a tragic accident. but look closer.