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Michael Iver PETERSON





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide
Number of victims: 2
Date of murders: 1985 / December 9, 2001
Date of arrest: December 16, 2001
Date of birth: October 23, 1943
Victims profile: Elizabeth Ratliff / Kathleen Peterson, 48 (his wife)
Method of murder: Blows with a blunt object
Location: Germany / Durham County, North Carolina, USA
Status: Sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole October 11, 2003

photo gallery


autopsy reports


kathleen peterson

elizabeth ratliff


North Carolina Court of Appeals


opinion COA05-973


Michael Iver Peterson (born October 23, 1943 near Nashville, Tennessee, USA) is a fiction writer and politician. In 2003, he was convicted of the murder of his wife, Kathleen Peterson.

Personal life

Michael "Mike" Peterson graduated from Duke University with a bachelor's degree in political science. He attended classes at the law school of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

At Duke he was the president of Sigma Nu fraternity and the editor of The Chronicle.

In 1965, Peterson married Patricia Sue Peterson. They had two children, Clayton and Todd Peterson. Clayton lived with Michael at the time of Kathleen's death. In 1994 Clayton Peterson, who was then a freshman at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke, tried to bomb the main administration building at Duke.

In 1968, he voluntarily enlisted in the Marines but was discharged four years later when a car accident left him with a permanent disability.

Michael and Patricia lived in Germany for some time, where they befriended Elizabeth and George Ratliff and their two children, Margaret and Martha. After George's death in Grenada, the Peterson and Ratliff families became very close. When Elizabeth Ratliff died in 1985, her two children became Michael's wards.

In 1989, Michael moved in with Kathleen Peterson, a successful business executive and socialite. They married in 1997. Kathleen's daughter, Caitlin, and Michael's sons, Clayton and Todd, joined the extended Peterson family.

Professional accomplishments

Michael Peterson wrote three novels: The Immortal Dragon, A Time of War, A Bitter Peace, and a biography: Charlie Two Shoes and the Marines of Love Company. He was a controversial editorial columnist for the Durham Herald newspaper, expressing opinions about the racial divide that existed in the town where he lived.

Over the years, Peterson made various attempts to win public office. It was discovered during his 1999 mayoral campaign that he had lied about his record of military honors.

The trial

Kathleen's death

On December 9, 2001, Michael called the emergency line to report that he had just found Kathleen and suspected that she had fallen down "15 or 20 stairs." Peterson maintained that Kathleen must have fallen down the stairs after consuming alcohol and valium. Toxicology results showed that his wife's blood alcohol content was 0.07 percent.

The autopsy report concluded that the 48 year old victim sustained a matrix of severe injuries, including a fracture of the thyroid neck cartilage and seven lacerations to the top and back of her head consistent with blows from a blunt object. Kathleen's daughter had initially maintained Michael's innocence and publicly supported him alongside his children but reconsidered upon finding out about the results of the autopsy and broke off from the rest of the family.

Experts concluded that the injuries sustained were inconsistent with an accidental fall down the stairs. As Michael Peterson was the only person at the residence at the time of Kathleen's death, he was the prime suspect, and was soon charged with her murder. He pleaded not guilty.

The trial drew media attention, as the details of Michael's life emerged. Prosecutors (among them future District Attorney Mike Nifong) attacked Peterson's credibility, focusing on his alleged misreporting of his military service and what they described as a gay life he led and kept secret.

The prosecution contended that the Petersons' marriage was far from happy, suggesting that Kathleen had discovered Michael's alleged secret gay life and wanted to end their marriage. This scenario was offered as the probable motive for Kathleen's alleged murder. The defense argued that Kathleen knew about and accepted Michael's bisexuality and that the marriage was very happy, a position supported by the Peterson's numerous friends and associates.

The Durham coroner concluded that Kathleen had died due to lacerations of the scalp caused by a homicidal assault. There were in total seven lacerations to the top and back of her head caused, according to the coroner, by repeated blows with a weapon similar to a fireplace poker.

The defense disputed this finding as Kathleen's skull had not been fractured by the blows nor was the brain damaged. When asked by the defense if she knew of even one other similar assault that did not cause such injuries the coroner stated she did not research criminal cases so could not comment.

Suspicion falls on Elizabeth Ratliff's death

Elizabeth Ratliff, who died in Germany in 1985, was also found at the foot of her staircase with injuries to the head.

An autopsy at the time of her death concluded she had died from an intra-cerebral haemorrhage secondary to the blood coagulation disorder Von Willebrand's disease.

By all accounts, including his own, Peterson was the last person to see her alive.

Following a court-ordered exhumation of Elizabeth's body a second autopsy in April 2003, conducted by the same person who had performed Kathleen Peterson's autopsy, concluded instead that she had died due to fractures of the skull caused by a homicidal assault. There were in total 7 lacerations to the top and back of her head. The admissibility of this evidence in court was one of the grounds for the subsequent appeal against his conviction, lodged by Peterson's lawyers in 2005.


On October 10, 2003, after one of the longest trials in North Carolina history, a Durham County jury found Michael Peterson guilty of the murder of Kathleen Peterson. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Denial of parole requires premeditation, despite accepting the murder was a "spur of the moment" crime the jury also found it was premeditated. As one juror explained it, premeditated meant not only planning hours or days ahead but could also mean planning in the seconds before committing a spur of the moment crime.

Peterson is housed at the Nash Correctional Institution near Rocky Mount.


Peterson's appeal was filed by his defense counsel Thomas Maher, now serving as his court-appointed attorney, and was argued before the North Carolina Court of Appeals on April 18, 2006.

On September 19, 2006 the Court of Appeals rejected Peterson's arguments that he did not get a fair trial because of repeated judicial mistakes. The appeals ruling said the evidence was fairly admitted. The judges did find defects in a search warrant but said they had no ill effect on the defense. Because the Court of Appeals' ruling was not unanimous, under North Carolina law Peterson had right to appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which accepted the case.

Oral argument was heard on September 10, 2007. On November 9, 2007 the Court announced that it affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals. Absent a reconsideration of the ruling or the raising of a federal issue, Peterson has exhausted his appeal of the verdict.

As of Tue, Mar. 10, 2009 the request for a new trial been denied.

Arguments for a New Trial

On November 12, 2008, J. Burkhardt Beale and Jason Anthony, Richmond, Va. attorneys, who now represent Michael Peterson, filed a motion for a new trial in Durham County court on three grounds: that the prosecution withheld exculpatory evidence about a tire iron; that the prosecution used an expert witness, whose qualifications are disputed; and that one juror based his judgment on racial factors not evidence. On March 10, 2009 Peterson's motion was denied by the Durham County Superior Court.

Other supporters of Michael Peterson have raised a new theory of Kathleen Peterson's death, that she was attacked by an owl in the home. Advocates of this theory allege the existence of evidence to support it, namely that two of the seven scalp wounds were tri-lobed and consistent with marks left by talons and that in her left hand Kathleen clutched a clump of her own hair that she had pulled out by the roots. Found entangled in this hair was an Owl feather. A former prosecutor rejects the theory as preposterous and the coroner stated that "the evidence shows it is unlikely that an owl or any other bird could be responsible for wounds as deep as they were". No motion for a new trial has yet been filed on this point.

Suspicions: a documentary of the trial

The court case generated widespread interest in part because of a televised documentary named, Soupçons (Suspicions) which detailed Peterson's legal and personal troubles. The six-hour film, variously known as The Staircase and Death on the Staircase, was released by Maha Productions in October 2004. It was directed by French filmmaker, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.

The documentary examined the role and behavior of the popular press as it covered aspects of the case. It gives an intimate depiction of the defense preparations for the trial.

The filmmakers started their project within weeks of the December 2001 murder and Peterson's murder indictment; jury selection took place in May 2003 with the case itself going to trial in July 2003. The six hour documentary was assembled from over 600 hours of footage.

Current status of the parties

  • In October 2002, acting as administrator of Kathleen's estate, Caitlin filed a wrongful death claim against Michael. In June 2006, he voluntarily filed for bankruptcy. Two weeks later Caitlin filed an objection to the bankruptcy. On February 1, 2007, Caitlin and Michael settled the wrongful death claim for $25 million, pending acceptance by the courts involved; finalization of the settlement by the court was announced on February 1, 2008. In the settlement, Michael did not admit that he murdered Kathleen. Caitlin is unlikely to ever collect a significant amount of the judgment.

  • Caitlin Atwater recently graduated from Cornell University.

  • Peterson's younger son, Todd Peterson, lives in Dubai.

  • Peterson's older son, Clayton Peterson, was married in 2004.

  • Martha Ratliff lives in San Francisco.

  • Margaret Ratliff is studying documentary filmmaking at Columbia College in Chicago.

  • Following the trial, one of Peterson's lawyers, Thomas Maher, resigned from the firm that bore his name (Rudolf, Maher, Widenhouse & Fialko). He is now Peterson's court-appointed attorney.

  • Lead defense counsel David Rudolf mentions the Peterson case on his website

  • This case was featured in the episode "A Novel Idea" of Forensic Files



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