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Expert: Injuries not consistent with fall in woman's death

By John Springer
Court TV

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DURHAM, North Carolina (Court TV) -- The last of a parade of prosecution witnesses testified Thursday that novelist Michael Peterson's wife suffered seven distinct lacerations on her head -- too many to be consistent with a fall -- before she died at the base of a flight of stairs.

The witness, assistant North Carolina medical examiner Deborah Radisch, told jurors she drew a similar conclusion after finding lacerations on the back of the head of a woman who died in an apparent staircase fall after Peterson walked her home in 1985.

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The testimony, which comes near the end of the 10th week of Peterson's highly publicized trial, is central to the prosecution's case and a significant challenge to the defense. But supporters of Peterson, a former newspaperman who took on police and prosecutors here in columns, say jurors have only heard part of the story so far.

"Dr. Radisch is a good witness, but she's turning out to be the only real witness they have," Doug Hinds, an attorney and longtime friend of the defendant, told Court TV.

Radisch testified first about the autopsy she and other pathologists performed on December 9, 2001, on the body of Kathleen Peterson. Earlier that day, at 2:40 a.m., Michael Peterson had called 911 to report that his wife of five years had fallen down 15 or 18 steps.

In her examination of the body, Radisch's told jurors that the victim:

• Sustained seven distinct lacerations to the back of her head from separate impacts

• May have fought off an assailant, based on apparent defensive wounds

• Suffered a fractured thyroid cartilage in her throat, suggesting an attempted strangulation, and

• Did not have a fractured skull

After jurors were shown 11 autopsy photos of the lacerations, prosecutor Jim Hardin Jr. asked Radisch whether a fireplace poker that no one can account for could have caused the deep lacerations she observed, some of which split the scalp all the way to the skull, without fracturing Peterson's skull.

The witness held a duplicate of the poker, a 4-foot-long tool with a hollow shaft and hook at the tip, as she considered her answer.

"Yes .... This item has weight to it, but it is not solid," Radisch said. "This is metal, but is hollow metal and under the right circumstances may have been sufficient to cause severe lacerations without leaving any skull fracture."

A similar death

Hardin then turned his attention to the subject of Elizabeth Ratliff, a neighbor of Michael Peterson when he lived in Germany in 1985. The 43-year-old school teacher, a widow whose surviving daughters Peterson later raised, was similarly found dead at the bottom of a staircase.

German police, a U.S. Army pathologist and a distinguished pathology institute concluded that the death was due to a cerebral hemorrhage, but friends of Ratliff testified that they have long suspected foul play based on the amount of blood they observed on walls adjacent to the staircase.

Ratliff's body was exhumed in April and re-autopsied by Radisch in North Carolina. In Radisch's opinion, the initial autopsy performed in Germany was not done correctly and that the pathologist who conducted it had erred in concluding that Ratliff died from a brain hemorrhage that led to a stairway fall.

"He didn't find any vascular rupture," Radisch said, suggesting that the absence of the source of a brain hemorrhage casts doubt on whether Ratliff suffered one.

After the jury heard extensive medical testimony and viewed autopsy photos, Radisch summed up her findings.

"In my opinion, the manner of death in Mrs. Ratliff's case was homicide," Radisch said.

Radisch also testified that she reviewed 289 cases in North Carolina between 1991 and 2003 where people died from falls and concluded that most who suffered lacerations had only one or two, not seven.

Absent fracture

Defense lawyer David Rudolf had only just begun cross-examining the important prosecution witness before court recessed for the day. The lawyer and the forensic pathologist started off badly.

"Good afternoon, Mrs. Radisch," Rudolf said.

"Dr. Radisch," the witness corrected.

The defense contends that physicians who examined Ratliff's body in Germany 18 years ago were in a better position to determine how she died than Radisch and neuropathologist Aaron Gleckman were a few months ago. Radisch and Gleckman, for example, both noted that pieces of Ratliff's brain were not with the body when it was exhumed.

Rudolf is also expected to point out that Kathleen Peterson did not suffer a fractured skull. The defense believes that if she were beaten with a weapon, her skull would have sustained at least a hairline fracture.

Among the issues Rudolf is expected to address through his questions is a diagram Radisch showed jurors toward the end of her direct testimony. The diagram compared Kathleen Peterson's head lacerations with those suffered 18 years earlier by Elizabeth Ratliff.

"We're seeing multiple severe lacerations in both cases in different planes, going in different directions," Radisch said.

Testimony resumes 9:30 a.m. Friday. The trial is being broadcast by Court TV.

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