Appeals court: Peterson should get new trial

Jul. 16, 2013 @ 06:25 PM

The N.C. Court of Appeals has ruled that Michael Peterson, who was convicted in 2003 of killing his wife, Kathleen Peterson, should receive a new trial.

The Court agreed with the ruling of Durham County Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson that newly discovered evidence makes it necessary for Peterson to be tried again in the death of his wife at their mansion in Durham.

Peterson was a best-selling novelist, and his wife was an executive with Nortel at the time of her death.

The State alleged that Peterson hit his wife in the head with a fireplace tool, but  Peterson claimed his wife was fatally injured when she accidentally fell down the back staircase in their home on Dec. 9, 2001.

Durham County District Attorney Leon Stanback said Tuesday he has not yet decided to whether to retry Peterson.

The possibilities for the district attorney's office include asking the North Carolina Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals ruling, retry Peterson for murder, offer Peterson a plea deal or drop the case against him.

Stanback said he spoke to the N.C. Attorney General's Office about the State's options Tuesday morning after the ruling was published.

"Everything is a possibility," Stanback said.

The first option, to ask the Supreme Court to review the decision, could fail if the Supreme Court decides not to review the Court of Appeals decision or it agrees with Hudson's ruling.

On the other hand, if the Supreme Court were to reverse the ruling, Peterson would go straight back to prison to continue serving his life sentence for first-degree murder.

"It would be the end of the story," Stanback said. "It would be just as if he had never been let out if the Court of Appeals is reversed."

He expects to make a decision within the next several weeks.

"We'll make an announcement when we make  the decision, but we don't want to leave any stone unturned," Stanback said.

Peterson is out on bond but must wear an electronic bracelet on his ankle to monitor his whereabouts.

Hudson's ruling, and the Court of Appeals upholding of that ruling, focused on the testimony of former SBI Agent Duane Deavers, who claimed he was an experienced expert in blood spatter analysis and had investigated many cases in which someone had fallen down stairs.

Deaver, who was considered "one of the State's most important expert witnesses," according to the opinion, claimed Peterson struck his wife four times in the head with a blowpoke prior to falling down the stairs.

In Hudson's ruling, he said the grounds for his opinion was that Deaver misled the court and made false and misleading testimony, the Court of Appeals opinion noted.

During the trial, Deaver claimed he was trained and  supervised by senior SBI Agent Spittle; that he had written about 200 reports involving blood stain analysis in cases he investigated and that he participated in 500 cases involving bloodstain analysis. He also claimed he had personally investigated crime scenes involving alleged falls 15 times.

However, during a post-conviction hearing in December 2011, Peterson's attorneys showed Deaver misrepresented his qualifications. He had not been mentored by Spittle; had only participated in 54 cases, not 500, of blood stain analysis; and only wrote 36 reports, not 200, about blood stain analysis. He had not been to any alleged accidental fall crime scenes, as he claimed, other than at Peterson's house.

The State argued that the evidence Deaver presented did not affect the ultimate opinion of homicide and the evidence of his guilt was so overwhelming that the evidence Deaver presented would not have made a probable impact on the verdict.

The Court of Appeals disagreed, saying Deaver's testimony was central to the State's case and the evidence concerning his qualifications would have "completely undermined the credibility of the State's entire theory of the case."

Court of Appeals Judges Donna Stroud and Sam Ervin IV concurred with the opinion written by Robert C. Hunter.