Crime

Real life hoo-dunit? Attorney Rudolf says owl could have killed Kathleen Peterson

An owl might have killed Michael Peterson’s wife, his defense attorney said Wednesday night.

David Rudolf, the attorney who defended the novelist after his wife Kathleen died in 2001, launched a world tour in Durham Wednesday night giving credence to the popular theory at a talk entitled “Inside the Staircase: Lies, Fake Science and the Owl Theory.”

“It’s a very plausible theory,” Rudolf said. “I can’t sit here and say that it’s accurate. Do I think it’s more plausible than any other theory that I’ve heard until now? Yes.”

WRAL-TV anchor David Crabtree, who moderated the talk at Durham’s Carolina Theatre, noted that Rudolf had said offstage that the theory was “correct.”

Durham was Rudolf’s first stop in the tour, with future events in London, Dublin and Glasgow, among other places. The theory, which argues that an owl left Kathleen Peterson bloodied and dead at the foot of the stairs of their Forest Hills mansion, gained popularity after “The Staircase,” a 13-episode documentary on the case, was released on Netflix this summer.

Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife in 2003 and served time in prison until 2011, when he was released after a judge ruled that jurors were misled about blood evidence by one of the prosecution’s key witnesses.

Peterson was granted a new trial but pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 2017 and avoided additional prison time.

The 74-year-old has continued to maintain his innocence.

The case began when Peterson called the police in the early hours of the morning Dec. 9, 2001, saying he had found his wife unconscious at the foot of the stairs. Kathleen Peterson later died.

The prosecution argued that Peterson struck and killed his wife.

Rudolf and the defense had argued that Kathleen Peterson had died from a fall down the stairs after drinking wine and taking Valium.

The owl theorists believe otherwise.

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Larry Pollard at a press conference in front of the Durham County Courthouse in 2008. Pollard, a former neighbor of convicted murderer Michael Peterson, was attempting to bolster his hypothesis that an owl killed Peterson’s wife, Kathleen, instead of Peterson. Harry Lynch News & Observer file

The idea was first theorized by Peterson’s former neighbor, attorney Larry Pollard, during Peterson’s trial.

He saw the photos of the wounds Kathleen Peterson had suffered and noticed they looked like talon marks. He called an ornithologist who he had seen recently and asked if bird attacks were common — and the ornithologist pointed him to owls, which are known to attack humans.

Pollard deduced that an owl swooped in and grabbed Kathleen Peterson’s head with its piercing talons when she headed outside to put Christmas decorations on the porch — the blow leaving a feather found in her hair.

“I called it my smoking feather,” Pollard told the 9th Street Journal, a reporting project at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University.

A throng of onlookers crowded Pollard after the event Wednesday, including one fan wearing a shirt that said the owl committed the crime. Pollard had brought details of to his theory to Rudolf just before closing arguments for the trial. Evidence had been closed for the trial at that point and Rudolf had been arguing to the jury for months that Kathleen Peterson had died in a fall.

Rudolf said at the event Wednesday night that the tip came too late to raise in the trial. “I [couldn’t] now stand up and say forget about all that, she really didn’t fall, it was an owl.”

But with hindsight, Rudolf said that he had noted a number of apparent inconsistencies with a fall in evidence — including a bloody palm mark on the frame of the front door. As Pollard developed the theory, Rudolf said it became more credible.

“I had tunnel vision,” Rudolf said. “I had a theory that it was a fall, and anything that was inconsistent with that theory or might have been, I came up with my own explanations for.”

Rudolf said he believed that Kathleen Peterson died from a fall because that was what Michael Peterson thought had happened when Rudolf first came on the case.

“He finds his wife at the bottom of the stairs, she’s bleeding profusely. What do you think?” Rudolf said. “If you’re Michael, you say your wife just fell down the stairs. That set the tone.”

Ben Leonard is a junior at Duke University studying journalism and public policy. He covers local government for the 9th Street Journal. He is also the managing editor of the Duke Chronicle and has previously interned at NBC News and The Center for Investigative Reporting.

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