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The railroading of Michael Peterson

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If they ran the justice system in Uganda like this, the United Nations would send watchdogs in to document the human rights abuses.

In retrospect, the 2003 trial and conviction of Durham novelist Michael Peterson was more like something you'd expect out of a tin-pot dictatorship in some far-flung hellhole. Then again, this is the same justice system that handled the Duke Lacrosse case.

Peterson made his mark in Durham by torching Durham District Attorney James Hardin, city hall and the local police department as a columnist for The Herald-Sun. So when Peterson's wife turned up dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs in the couple's mansion, they weren't exactly neutral advocates for justice. A grand jury indicted Peterson within two weeks of his wife's death, lightning speed in a county where that usually takes months.

"The urgency prompted some to complain that Hardin was out to get Peterson," the Herald-Sun opined in 2004.

Peterson says he didn't kill his wife — that she must have fallen down the stairs. Kenneth Snell, the state medical examiner who examined her body, concluded the same thing. He later changed his mind.

Police badly botched the crime scene analysis. Confusion ensued over whether the wounds to Kathleen Peterson could have been made by an attacker, a fall or both. The prosecution's case might have unraveled completely without the extensive testimony of State Bureau of Investigation agent Duane Deaver.

As Raleigh's News & Observer reported last week, the Peterson prosecution team — which included the now disgraced Mike Nifong — hung its case on Deaver's credibility and Deaver's "expert" analysis of the blood spatter at the crime scene. But as Peterson's attorney recently pointed out, Deaver concluded the case was a homicide before ever performing a single test.

What no one knew at the time was that the methods Deaver used to analyze the crime scene were complete gobbledygook, as a 2010 N&O investigation would later reveal. Rather than using nationally recognized methods of crime scene analysis, SBI agents essentially made up their own.

As the paper reported this week, Peterson's attorney, David Rudolf, busted Deaver on the stand for failing to tell the court about tests he did that pointed to Peterson's innocence. Thanks to the N&O investigation, we now know that Deaver "fixed" evidence in at least 30 other cases. He has since been fired by the SBI and is facing criminal charges. Innocent people Deaver helped convict are now being released from prison as the cases against them fall apart under scrutiny.

I don't know if Peterson killed his wife, but given what we now know about the SBI, the jury couldn't have known either.

Peterson is now destitute and has spent a decade in prison. Last week, Rudolf asked the court for a new trial. If Peterson isn't granted one, it's time to call Human Rights Watch.

Unfortunately, the real perpetrators here have long since gotten away. I'm not just talking about the murderers who escaped justice while fraudulent SBI analysis and testimony helped put innocent people in prison. I'm referring to the ultimate perpetrators here: former governor and now convicted felon Mike Easley, and Roy Cooper, the current attorney general of North Carolina. Easley was attorney general from 1992 to 2000, then Cooper took over. The state's attorney general oversees the SBI, so the buck stops with him.

You can debate whether Easley and Cooper should have realized individual SBI agents were faking test results and making up confessions. But Deaver was busted very publicly on the stand in 2003 withholding evidence in one of the highest profile murder cases in state history. Yet Cooper allowed Deaver to continue working on cases for seven years after the Peterson case. As prosecutors, Easley and Cooper also should have known that the methods their investigators were using didn't meet recognizable national standards.

Incredibly, after 20 years of fraud by the SBI and who knows how many lives ruined, Easley has received no public rebuke whatsoever and Cooper remains in office. Despite slaps at Cooper on the state's editorial pages, no one has gone so far as to suggest Cooper actually resign. If he wants it, Cooper could have a bright political career ahead of him. That's one of the biggest injustices of all.


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