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North Carolina Writer Charged with Wife's Murder

Aired July 3, 2003 - 19:06   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Want to tell you about a murder trial in North Carolina that's pitting prosecutors against a novelist who claims his wife died accidentally.
Fifty-nine-year-old Michael Peterson is his name. He's accused of killing his wife to cash in on her life insurance, a little bit over $1 million.

Peterson says his wife fell down the stairs. But prosecutors say that story is just another work of fiction.

We have a report from Julia Lewis of CNN affiliate WRAL.


JULIA LEWIS, WRAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Former Durham mayoral candidate Mike Peterson calls 911.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How many stairs did she fall down?


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How many stairs? Calm down, sir. Calm down.

PETERSON: Fifteen, 20, I don't know. Please, get somebody here right away.

LEWIS: His wife Kathleen is dead, lying at the bottom of a back staircase inside the couple's mansion. Investigators search the sprawling estate for three days.

Nearly two weeks later, district attorney Jim Hardin convenes a special grand jury.

JIM HARDIN, DISTRICT ATTORNEY: There were at least eight or nine huge tearing laceration wounds to the back of Ms. Peterson's head. There is no question that this wasn't an accident.

LEWIS: Mike Peterson is indicted for murder. He briefly speaks to the media before turning himself in to the magistrate.

PETERSON: Kathleen was my life. I whispered her name in my heart a thousand times. She is there. But I can't stop crying.

LEWIS (on camera): Mr. Peterson, how does it feel to be out? (voice-over) In January he gets out of jail. The case then takes a twist, as investigators head to Texas.

They're looking into the death of an old friend of Mike Peterson. Elizabeth Ratliff (ph) died nearly 20 years in Germany. She was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her home. Investigators exhume her body and bring it back to Chapel Hill for a new autopsy.

Peterson insists Ratliff died of natural causes. However, the new autopsy finds several head gashes and concludes she was murdered.

During jury selection in the Peterson trial, prosecutors take their investigation overseas. They examine the stairs where Ratliff's body was found and question a former neighbor, who says she saw Mike Peterson quickly leaving here the night she died.

However, Judge Orlando Hudson has yet to rule on whether the Ratliff case will be admissible as evidence during the Peterson trial.


COOPER: It's just a fascinating case. Tom Gasparoli is a columnist for the "Durham Herald-Sun" and joins us from Raleigh, North Carolina tonight.

Tom, thanks for being with us.

There is no murder weapon to speak of, at least no murder weapon found, no witnesses. What is this case going to hinge on?

TOM GASPAROLI, "DURHAM HERALD-SUN": Well, it's going to hinge number one on how much blood there was at the scene and whether falling down the bottom part of some old stairs could cause a voluminous amount of blood, puddles of blood, spatters of blood up two, three feet, six feet, maybe even ten feet high.

COOPER: You're talking about the blood because the paramedics who got to the scene first said they never seen so much blood from a fall down the stairs.

GASPAROLI: You're absolutely right, Anderson. They said, you know, in their careers they'd never saw this much blood. On top of that, as you saw in the piece, prosecutor Hardin described eight to nine huge tearing lacerations. Could they be caused by a fall down the stairs?

That's going to be the essence of the case, because there is no murder weapon. However, the prosecutor has introduced a fire place tool that is a replica of a gift that was given to Kathleen Peterson a few years ago that is now missing. And he's claiming that was the murder weapon, even though it has not been found.

COOPER: Yes. I should emphasize that weapon has not been found in the house at all.

Tom, do you think prosecutors are going to attack the character of Mr. Peterson? Because there are some discrepancies in stories he's told in the past.

I mean, this man is a very well-known, controversial figure in this community. He ran for mayor back in '99 and was found to have been lying about his Purple Heart. At least some claim that. Is he going to be on trial, his character?

GASPAROLI: I think if the defense opens his character to analysis, then the prosecution will step right in. I think you might find, based on my reporting, that Mr. Peterson has been living in a house of cards for many years...

COOPER: Why do you say that?

GASPAROLI: ... and they will come crashing down on him. First of all, of course, the news about lying about a Purple Heart, apparently, lying about an injury for 20 or 30 years.

COOPER: Right. He was saying he got in a grenade attack. It turned out he got a Purple Heart, I think, in an auto accident in Japan.

GASPAROLI: Well, he had the injury in an auto accident in Japan, serving as a military policeman. He did not get it from shrapnel and an explosion during combat. He limps. He has a small limp with this injury. He's been talking about this war injury for years. It's part of his persona and then he wrote war novels, very exciting war novels. And then he became a columnist and actually preceded me at the "Herald-Sun."

COOPER: There's also out -- that's right, you stepped in after he left to run for mayor. Now there are also are some allegations about, like, bisexuality. They say they found stuff, pornography on his computer.

Are they going to be able to introduce that or is it all dependent on whether the defense opens it up?

GASPAROLI: I think, really, it depends on whether the defense opens it up. The sex material, the issues of whether he has been bisexual or homosexual during his marriage or prior to his marriage, may not come in. But if it does come in, it's going to contribute to a pattern of deceit.

And I believe that the jury will look at the forensics and not be sure and they may look at his life and say, "I don't know if I believe anything this guy says and he's the man that said it's an accident."

COOPER: All right. Tom Gasparoli, I've been reading your writing. Appreciate you joining us.

GASPAROLI: Thank you.

COOPER: Thanks very much.

Also joining us to discuss the Michael Peterson trial is a friend of the defendant. Nick Galifianakis advising the defense team. He also happens to be a former U.S. congressman. He joins us from Raleigh, North Carolina.

Thank you very much for being with us, Nick.

You have known Michael Peterson, I think, for some 30 years or so. Do you believe he had a hand in his wife's death?

NICK GALIFIANAKIS, PETERSON'S FRIEND: Absolutely not. I think Mike is completely innocent of this charge, and I think that when the truth is known, I think the truth will set him free.

Unfortunately, the case has taken on drama, has taken on rumors, has taken on speculations and also compounded by a similar sounding case in California, the Scott Peterson case, which people locally have confused the facts of that case with the facts of this case.

COOPER: Well, do you believe that -- I mean, it would seem that if they're able to, at least, the prosecution is going try to put this man's character on trial and there are discrepancies. I mean, the story about the Purple Heart, you know, these allegations about a secret life.

Do you -- as his friend do you worry that is going to influence the jury if they do, in fact, hear it?

GALIFIANAKIS: I prefer not to comment on evidentiary stuff that's prospective and speculative at this stage of the game.

COOPER: Well, let's talk about strategy, though, of the prosecution. Are you afraid -- are you concerned what the prosecution may use as part of their strategy?

GALIFIANAKIS: No. I'm not fearful because I feel confident that whatever may be put in there will have a rational explanation to it.

I happened to know Kathleen myself and I've been friends with her, and I've represented her in her capacity as vice president of Nortel, and I know the intimacy between those two. And I have absolutely no doubts and nothing that has appeared so far. I am unshakable in spite of all that's been put forth.

COOPER: Fair enough. Nick, let me jump in here because one other thing has not been brought up and I think it should be. This man was a muckraking journalist, some called him, in his town, wrote very critically of police, wrote very critically of local politicians.

Do you think that has anything to do with him being brought up on these charges?

GALIFIANAKIS: Yes. Initially, I got a call from a neighbor there who called me and said, "Nick, there are 14 police cars at Mike's house and the police are out to get him and they're going to get him." And she made reference to the fact that she had been reading some of the inflammatory stuff that he was writing and it had a twist of ridicule to it.

And so a first impression of many was that it's payback time because of the references that he made to police enforcement and criminality that was existing in our town.

COOPER: And prosecutors, of course, simply deny that outright. Nick Galifianakis, appreciate you coming in, talking about your friend. Appreciate you taking the time.

GALIFIANAKIS: Thank you very much.


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