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Friday, August 20, 2010

Michael Peterson retrial?

The NC SBI controversy – or, should I say, disaster – has escalated to include the Michael Peterson case. I blogged about the SBI last week.

For those of you who don’t know, I was a professional colleague and close personal friend of the deceased, Kathleen Atwater. I spoke with her not long before her death. I had been to the Atwater/Peterson home several times. I knew Peterson, and I had met their children. I attended one day of the trial, but I was not called as a witness. I did speak, however, with the Raleigh News & Observer about the case.

Supporters of Peterson have been asking for a retrial ever since his conviction. Until last month, the only alternative theory of Atwater’s death they’ve offered is rather absurd: a live owl in the house caused her to fall down the stairs. Not even Peterson’s defense counsel at trial dared to try that one on the jury.

Because the SBI testified at Peterson’s trial, his children – who maintain his innocence, without endorsing the owl theory – are asking for a new trial, at least in the press. No motion has been filed yet. The French team that filmed the trial have also asked for a new trial.

Not long after Atwater’s death, I became convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Peterson did in fact murder her. The SBI’s testimony was not a major factor in my decision. If the SBI possesses exonerating evidence that they suppressed, I would have to change my decision. I don’t expect any exonerating evidence to be brought forward, however.

I’m sure the judges on the Durham County Superior Court and the Durham County DA don’t relish the idea of another long, complex, and highly publicized trial. Nor do I. The trial will also reopen the rift between my friends and former colleagues who believe Peterson is guilty and those who believe he is innocent. The two factions sat in different sections of Duke Chapel at Atwater's funeral and tend to avoid contact.

Compared to the capital punishment imposed and carried out upon three persons whose convictions are now called into question because of SBI incompetence and malfeasance, the Peterson case is less important. The Durham County DA did not seek the death penalty for Peterson. But this case is another morbid proof point that the SBI debacle, like the BP oil spill in the Gulf, is not easily contained or cleaned up -- and will have repercussions for years.