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Death of novelist Michael Peterson’s wife Kathleen is focus of An American Murder Mystery

Michael Peterson
Michael Peterson with his wife Kathleen Atwater whom he was accused of murdering

An American Murder Mystery: The Staircase is a three-part special on Investigation Discovery examining the case of novelist Michael Peterson, who was accused of murdering his wife.

Michael Peterson was born in 1943 and attended Duke University, where he received a degree in political science and was also editor of the student newspaper. After worked for Department of Defense and later served in the marines during Vietnam and later as a military policeman in Japan.

He married Patricia Peterson in 1965 and the pair had two children, who were later augmented with two more when the Peterson’s close friends died and they took on their children as wards. In 1987 the couple divorced and eventually all the children ended up staying with him.

Peterson also wrote several novels about the Vietnam war, with The Immortal Dragon, A Time of War, and A Bitter Peace all proving popular.

In 1989 Peterson met successful businesswoman Kathleen Atwater and the pair were married in 1997.

However, story took a darker turn at their Durham, North Carolina home on December 9, 2001, when Peterson called police to report that his 48-year-old wife was unconscious after falling down the stairs. He told police that he’d been outside by the pool that night and had come in to the house after 2:40 a.m. to find her lying on the floor.

The autopsy report found that the injuries sustained by Kathleen were not consistent with such a fall and were more likely caused by blunt force trauma from being hit by an object. She numerous laceration to the top of her head and a fracture of her thyroid neck cartilage.

Peterson was charged with his wife’s murder and at the trial the prosecution suggested his bisexual lifestyle was the motivation behind the killing, that and $1.5 million in life insurance. They also revisited the death of the Peterson’s friend, Elizabeth Ratliff. She and her husband had both died and the Peterson’s had looked after their kids as wards.

However, Ratliff had also died after falling down some stairs, with her death being ruled as a result of a blood disorder she had. Her body was exhumed and a second autopsy saw the cause of death changed to homicide. Peterson was not charged with her murder but it was brought up at his trial and the nanny who found her body testified.

In 2003, after a lengthy trial Peterson was found guilty of murder and given a life sentence, with no possibility of parole. In 2006 he appealed in the grounds that some evidence was unfairly submitted, this was rejected by the County Superior Court.

In 2009 a theory emerged that an owl could have attacked Kathleen and that this would account for the lacerations to the back of her head and the microscopic owl feathers found in her hair. This theory did get some traction in the press but was never tested in court.

In 2011 Peterson was released from prison on bail following a scandal related to SBI analyst Duane Deaver, who was one of the main witnesses at the trial. He was found to have falsely represented evidence in over 30 cases and was eventually fired.

This led to a new trial being ordered for Peterson, where he entered an Alford Plea to voluntary manslaughter. This sort of plea means you are not admitting guilt but you admit that there is enough evidence to convict you. He was sentenced to 86 months in prison, but faced no more time behind bars due to his time served.

American Murder Mystery: The Staircase airs at 10:00 PM on Investigation Discovery. 

James has worked for Monsters and Critics since it started back in 2003. He oversees the business and technical side of things. You can contact... read more
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