Courts & Crime

Judge: Novelist Michael Peterson's rights violated in murder case

Michael Peterson at a hearing in December 2011.
Michael Peterson at a hearing in December 2011. Raleigh News & Observer/MCT

A judge on Wednesday ruled that the murder conviction in 2003 of Durham novelist Michael Peterson was obtained with “materially misleading” and “deliberately false” testimony from a State Bureau of Investigation agent who was the most crucial witness in a case that spawned TV movies, books and a film.

Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson had previously said from the bench at the conclusion of a six-day hearing in December that misconduct by the state crime lab agent, Duane Deaver, required a new trial. Peterson was set free on bond to await a new trial.

Hudson’s written order was filed Wednesday and in 39 pages encapsulates what led to freedom for Peterson, who spent eight years in prison in the killing of his wife, Kathleen.

“(T)his court finds and concludes that Mr. Peterson’s conviction was obtained in violation of the Constitution of the United States,” the written order says.

Hudson’s order says that Peterson did not get a fair trial and his rights were violated because Deaver “deliberately and intentionally” misled the court and jurors, particularly about his education, experience and the scientific basis for conclusions he made that Peterson had killed his wife.

At the trial, Deaver was the key witness, with then-Durham District Attorney Jim Hardin telling the jury that Deaver was “very central to the state’s case.” Hardin is now a judge.

Hardin’s co-prosecutor in the case, Freda Black, had told the jury in the closing argument that Deaver “gave you truthful and accurate information.”

That wasn’t so, Hudson ruled.

Deaver, who was fired by the SBI last year amid questions about several cases, did not testify at last year’s hearing. An attorney for Deaver, Philip Isley of Raleigh, said Wednesday that he disagrees with the judge’s order.

“I 100 percent, categorically dispute and disagree with the findings in the judge’s order,” Isley said.

In the hearing last year, a lawyer for Peterson had shown the judge clips of Deaver’s testimony from the trial.

It was then contradicted by testimony from other SBI agents, expert witnesses and documents from the SBI’s files that were not available to Peterson’s defense at the time of the trial.

Hudson’s order found that Deaver gave “materially misleading and deliberately false” testimony about his:

  • Education and experience. Deaver overstated his experience and background, the judge found. For example, Deaver testified that he had been involved in 500 cases dealing with bloodstains. The actual number was 54, according to the judge.
  • Neutrality. Testimony showed that Deaver shaped his testimony and his work to favor prosecutors, and he “exhibited a pattern of bias in favor of the State and against criminal defendants that was repeated over the course of twenty years,” according to the order.
  • Scientific work. Deaver’s experiments and opinions “were not scientifically valid” and not accepted in the bloodstain analysis field, according to the order, which was based on testimony from a range of experts, and SBI officials, at last year’s hearing.
  • Hudson, who presided over the Peterson trial, wrote that had he known the full story, he would not have allowed Deaver to testify at the trial.

    “If this Court,” Hudson wrote, “had been aware that SA Deaver was misrepresenting the scientific basis and acceptability of his opinions, methods and experiments, this Court would not have permitted SA Deaver to testify as an expert at Mr. Peterson’s trial or to offer opinions to the jury.”

    Hudson had used the words “perjured testimony” in making his decision orally from the bench last year. The word perjury, which is a criminal charge, does not appear in the written order. Former DA Tracey Cline, who had handled the hearing on behalf of the state, had declined to discuss whether she would pursue any charges against Deaver.

    Cline had also already given notice of an appeal, which can begin in earnest now that a written order has been filed.

    Cline was later removed from office and replaced by former Judge Leon Stanback, who said Wednesday that his office is preparing an appeal of Hudson’s ruling to the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

    Peterson’s attorney, David Rudolf, could not be reached.