RALEIGH (AP) — A North Carolina appeals court said Tuesday that a Durham novelist should be given a new trial in the 2001 death of his wife because of newly discovered evidence in the case.
Michael Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Kathleen Peterson, who was found at the bottom of a staircase in the couple’s Durham home.
The 68-year-old Peterson has maintained his wife died in an accidental fall after drinking alcohol and taking Valium.
In December 2011, Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson tossed out the conviction and ordered a new trial. Hudson said Peterson’s 2003 murder conviction was obtained with “materially misleading” and “deliberately false” testimony from Duane Deaver, a State Bureau of Investigation agent.
A blood analyst, Deaver was a crucial witness at Peterson’s trial, which was carried live on cable television and became a documentary film and a made-for-TV movie.
But Deaver was fired in January 2011 after an independent audit found problems in 34 cases where he either misreported test results, withheld results that could have helped the defendant or overstated the strength of the evidence to help prosecutors. In one of those cases, a man spent more than 17 years in prison before being released after a state innocence panel exonerated him.
The state Attorney General’s Office appealed Hudson’s ruling, asking the three-judge appeals court panel to reinstate the murder conviction. The office argued there was other evidence presented during the trial that would have led jurors to reach the same verdict without Deaver’s testimony.
But the appeals court on Tuesday upheld Hudson’s decision.
“After careful review, we conclude that the evidence concerning Agent Deaver’s qualifications constitutes newly discovered evidence entitling defendant to a new trial,” the appeals court said.
Peterson’s attorney, Jim Cooney, praised the ruling.
“I think the essence of the court of appeals decision is that you don’t get a fair trial when the police lie. And Michael Peterson didn’t get a fair trial. Obviously, we’re very gratified by the court of appeals having the courage to say that out loud,” he told the Associated Press.
The Attorney General’s Office could appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, said they’re reviewing the ruling and will be consulting with the Durham District Attorney’s Office about how to proceed.
Peterson was released from prison in December 2011. Since then, he has been living in a house by himself in Durham. A former Marine in the Vietnam War, his novels include the 1990 “A Time of War,” an in-the-trenches look at the war, and a 1995 sequel, “A Bitter Peace.” Peterson was also a regular columnist for the Durham Herald-Sun and mounted an unsuccessful campaign to be the city’s mayor.
Cooney said Peterson was “trying to move on the best he can. “He’s still under essentially the provisions of house arrest for his bond. I think the big thing is he found out today that state troopers weren’t going to show up and put him in handcuffs,” he said.