If you don't know the Michael Peterson story, read this Wikipedia article.Kathleen Atwater was my good friend. Both of us had engineering educations yet loved the arts and discussions far afield from telecommunications. Her office was a few doors down from mine. We shared the frustrations and the occasional victories of middle management in a large corporation. We shared the uncertainties and fears that pervaded the business after the Internet bubble burst in 2001. We shared the ups and downs of raising teenagers. We flirted without intent.
And on a few occasions, I went to her house for a party and interacted with her husband Michael Peterson. He was enigmatic, both accessible and inaccessible in an odd way. When it became known that he had exaggerated his military decorations, I didn't trust him. But, I thought, live and let live. Although I had heard Kathleen say that her marriage was troublesome, many people griped about their marriages at work. Michael was always cordial to me, and I respected his profession as a newspaper columnist — a job I envy. I read one of his novels that Kathleen gave me. Not Dostoyevsky, but good.
When I first heard that Kathleen had died in her home on a stairway that I myself had walked down, I assumed she had fallen while inebriated. Despite weighing less than 100 pounds, I'm certain, she could put away wine. Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark? The Karen Allen character, Marian — also a lithe, short, feisty woman — twice drank a man under the table. That was Kathleen, and she could have a lot of fun and generate a lot of fun for everyone else in the process.
A day later the reports of Kathleen's death became ominous. As the facts came out, there was no doubt in my mind that Michael had killer her.
I went to Kathleen's funeral at Duke Chapel. Those of us who believed Michael guilty, sat on the left. Those who believed Michael innocent, sat on the right. We stared across the aisle uneasily to see which side our acquaintances had chosen while the organ played Barber's somber Adagio for Strings. The two sides kept separate when leaving.
Months later I was interviewed on background by a reporter from the News and Observer. Placed on the list of potential witnesses by the prosecution, I was never called because I had no unique insight or facts to provide. I took a day off from work to attend the trial with its circus atmosphere and to see Michael in person from the back row of the courtroom. Much of the time, the movie crew from France blocked my view.
The verdict was announced while I was at my desk at work. Guilty! I found myself surrounded by blood-thirsty comrades who hoped that Michael would get the death penalty. I refrained from that; I've demonstrated at Central Prison in Raleigh for abolition of the death penalty. Besides, the Durham County prosecutor had already ruled it out. Michael went to prison pending appeal, and I believed justice had been done — not merely for Kathleen, but for Michael's first wife.
You know what happened. The conviction was rightfully overturned because of procedural errors. Last week Michael submitted an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter. He and his lawyer maintain innocence, but don't be misled by courtroom procedure in North Carolina. He did it.
The public and the irreversibly alienated families of Kathleen and Michael are spared a second trial. He was sentenced to less time than he had already served, and he now walks the streets.
But I say he's not free, and thus I can accept the outcome. He stands convicted of intentionally taking another person's life, and he will live with that infamy for the rest of his. Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, perhaps he will kneel and seek forgiveness, but he's not free of his memories. He never shall be. Nor will those of us who knew Kathleen.