Getting Away with Murder

Part Two - Michael Peterson

A series of three posts about accused killers who, in my opinion, have gotten away with murder. In each entry, I will explain any updates and then excerpt the Afterword, my personal reflections on the case, found at the end of each book.

Michael Peterson, convicted of murdering his wife Kathleen Peterson and suspected of killing his close friend Liz Ratliff, was granted a new trial because the state’s blood expert was discredited. I can understand why a judge would grant another hearing to any defendant when an important witness is compromised. However, I have always considered the most damning evidence came from the autopsy results, specifically the presence of red neurons in Kathleen’s brain.

On February 24, 2017 Peterson was allowed to enter an Alford Plea to manslaughter, a legal device that allows a defendant to acknowledge that the state has enough to convict without admitting to an actual guilt. As a result, the judge ruled he was guilty and released him for time served. Michael Peterson, a suspected two-time killer walked away a free man after serving only eight years behind bars.


The following the Afterword, excerpted from Written in Blood:

“Psychology is based on probability.” Michael Nuccitelli, forensic psychologist.

I drove to Maplewood Cemetery after court one day. Peace settled around me as I entered the serene landscape spotted with majestic trees. Beneath one towering oak, I found the last resting place of Kathleen Hunt Peterson.

Above in the branches of the tree, the set of wind chimes hung from the branches. As I reached the foot of her grave, a breeze danced through the air and the sweetest sound I ever heard tinkled through the air. It was almost as if the gracious hostess was welcoming me to her new home.
I paused there for a time thinking about the great light lost the day Kathleen died. All the while the chimes graced the air with a pure sound that offered comfort. I placed a small stone on her headstone, turned and walked away. As soon as I passed under the tree on my way to my car, the breeze died and the music of Kathleen faded in the air.

I turned and waved to the woman I had never known and now never would. She remained a presence in the hearts of her mother, her daughter, her sisters, her brother and in those many lives she had also touched.

And now, she was rooted in mine. In the music of the chimes, I heard her voice. And I promised to remember.

The verdict was a foregone conclusion in my mind. The Medical Examiners Report made it murder. The spatter inside the shorts made it Mike. All else was window-dressing.

But who knows how the twists and turns tormented the collective mind of the chosen twelve. They pounded through weeks of a prosecution case where, at times, they seemed to be in the jury room more often than in the courtroom proper as one voir dire hearing after another banished them to their sanctum.

The top dollar defense team did not need to prove Peterson blameless–that is not their job. They needed only to etch enough question marks in the air. Still, it seemed odd that they did not present a single tangible witness that connected in a real way with the accused or the victim. Not one concrete witness mounted the stand for the defense–only professional experts.

No one took the stand to extol the virtues, the passions or the good works of Michael Peterson. Not a friend from his past. Not any of his neighborhood supporters and not one member of the family. Once the trial was over, it was still difficult to find anyone willing to spend a few minutes sharing a kind word on his behalf.

No one took the stand for the defense to testify about the events of December 9th or 10th or any day in the lives of Michael and Kathleen. Of course, the defendant avoided the hot seat—he had too many toxic elements in his life to survive the crucible of cross-examination.

What about the blowpoke that mysteriously reappeared? Neither the public nor the prosecutors nor the panel sitting in judgment knew anything about the provenance of that tool. No one spoke of where it was found. No one spoke of who found it. And all David Rudolph claimed to know was the story his client wove as if ignorance of the facts rendered the truth irrelevant.

Despite public opinion to the contrary, the legal system is no longer designed to find the truth–it is constructed to decide a winner. Although, life and death lay on the line, many players in the courtroom see it all as a game where cleverness and ruse win the day. A place where a desperate desire to deceive means truth is to be avoided at all costs.

And what is the truth—the whole truth about Michael Peterson? Perhaps it will never be known. As his good friend, Richard White Adams, said at his wedding to Kathleen, “Michael is a man of mystery.” He seemed to take great pleasure in this image.

More than one mental health professional on Court TV suggested that he could have Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If that diagnosis is true, it does answer a lot of questions in Michael’s life.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defined Narcissism as “a pattern of traits and behaviors which signify infatuation and obsession with one’s self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one’s gratification, dominance and ambition.” As many as 75% of all narcissists are men. It is in the same family of personality disorder as Borderline, Antisocial and Histrionic.

The art of deception is a hallmark of Narcissism. A person with NPD projects a false face to the world and manages all social interactions through this fictional self. People often become involved with a narcissist without having any awareness of who he really is.

He expresses surprise that society should hold him responsible and want to punish him for his actions. When faced with the judgment of others, he feels wronged and persecuted. It is rare for him to feel any regret for what he has done or any empathy for his victim.

He is apt to experiment sexually with multiple partners. Sex for him is the ultimate act of objectification of another human being. It proves his superiority and fuels his narcissism.

He often embroiders the tales of his achievements and talents to gain acknowledgement of his superiority. His humor is sharp and biting and cloaks a deep well of hostility and venom.

He draws to him people who offer positive affirmation. They are the source of his narcissistic supply. He desires to impress and manipulate them—and hold them tight.

But theories about the state of Michael Peterson’s mental health pales in importance when compared to the future of three damaged young women. What will become of Caitlin, Margaret and Martha?

Many in the families of Elizabeth Ratliff and Kathleen Peterson ache from the severing of their relationships with Margaret and Martha. The two sisters, whether they acknowledge it or not, are bound to suffer from this estrangement, too. Will they ever renew the relationships that were once so important to them? Will the fear of possible abandonment forever create barriers that separate them from others?

And what about Caitlin? She is a strong young woman with an intense desire to succeed. Time will somewhat soften the pain she feels from the loss of her mother. But, after viewing how her mother was betrayed by the men she loved—one painfully, the other lethally—will she ever be able to develop enough trust to enjoy an intimate adult relationship?

Margaret, Martha and Caitlin. The road to recovery for all of them will be a long and winding one. Whisper their names in your hearts. Bless them with a world of healing and a universe of hope.

Diane Fanning, author of WRITTEN IN BLOOD