At an upcoming show at Durham’s Carolina Theatre, Michael Peterson’s defense attorney, David Rudolf, is presenting “Inside The Staircase: Lies, Fake Science and The Owl Theory.”
“The Staircase” documentary was made during the Peterson murder trial, in which the prosecution claimed the wounds on Kathleen Peterson, the deep gashes on the back of her head and the small puncture wounds and scratches on her face and arms, were made from Michael beating his wife to death. The defense argued the wounds came from falls down the stairs where she was found.
The Owl Theory is an alternate explanation of the wounds, thought of and extensively investigated by attorney Larry Pollard, Peterson’s next-door neighbor. Pollard noted the trident shape of two wounds a few inches apart on the back of Kathleen’s head looked like bird tracks, with three toes pointing forward, and one toe pointing back. The two drops of Kathleen’s blood on the outside walkway made Pollard conclude that Kathleen was attacked by an owl outside her house that night, and she then ran inside, tried to walk upstairs, fainted, fell, and ultimately bled to death at the base of the stairs.
The owl theory credibly explains all the evidence in the case, which neither the murder theory nor the fall down the steps theory did. Neither theory credibly explained the small puncture marks around Kathleen’s eyes and on her arms, or why in her bloody hands were many of her hairs pulled out by the roots. Hairs pulled out by the roots is not consistent with being hit over the head or by one or more falls down the stairs. It is consistent with tightly gripping owl talons ripping out her hairs as it tried to fly away.
Near the end of the trial, Pollard brought his owl attack theory to both the prosecutor, Jim Hardin, and to David Rudolf, and both dismissed it. After talking to Hardin, the erroneous rumor circulated that Kathleen was attacked by an owl inside her house, a rumor intended to distort and ridicule the theory.
The jury found Michael Peterson guilty. Rudolph appealed and told Pollard that after all appeals were exhausted, he would look further into the owl attack theory.
With signed authority from Peterson, Pollard filed a Motion for Appropriate Relief (MAR) based on the newly discovered microscopic feathers attached by blood droplets to Kathleen’s hair, found on an SBI slide, which further supported the owl theory. The motion was denied.
Dr. Alan van Norman, a neurosurgeon and head wound expert, and also an owl expert, had written an article about the terrible wounds that can be inflicted by the razor sharp talons of owls, especially to the head and face. Kathleen’s autopsy report and photos were sent to him, and Dr. van Norman concluded that the wounds on Kathleen were likely made by an owl.
Pollard requested an affidavit from Dr. van Norman, to file with another MAR, but Attorney Rudolph did not want the owl theory pursued until he pursued his case against Deaver for lying at trial.
After eight years in prison, Rudolf got Peterson’s conviction overturned, because of the unscientific tests and false testimony at trial from Duane Deaver, the SBI blood expert. Ultimately because of his testimony in both the Peterson and in other murder cases, Deaver was fired from the SBI. It was noted that the SBI often devised its tests and reports specifically to support the prosecution, and not necessarily to reveal the truth.
Michael eventually took an Alford plea to spare his family the trauma and expense of another trial, and the feather fragments on the SBI slides have not been tested for owl DNA. But even without DNA evidence, the totality of all the evidence leads to the conclusion that the wounds on Kathleen were made by an attack by an owl, something that no one thought of at the time she was found at the base of the stairway.
This is indeed an interesting and compelling story of the injustice that goes on in the criminal justice system and in those government offices that create reports for the prosecutors to use at trial. David Rudolf’s upcoming presentation about all of what happened will be very interesting.
The truth about what happened to Kathleen that night might never have come to light without the diligent and tireless efforts of Larry Pollard, who endured a decade of ridicule about the owl theory. Those of us who believe in the owl theory are happy that David Rudolf is now talking about it, and doing so in a public forum.
Millie Hershner has a master’s degree in cell biology as well as a law degree.