Wednesday, August 13, 2003 Print This | Email This     

Expert gives jury a tutorial in blood spatter in novelist's murder

By John Springer, Court TV

DURHAM, N.C. (Court TV) — When police arrived to find Kathleen Peterson dead at the bottom of a staircase in the expansive home she shared with her husband, novelist Michael Peterson, one of the first things that struck officers was the amount of blood.

Moreover, it seemed to be everywhere.

On Thursday, jurors will hear one expert's explanation for why blood was found in places prosecutors say you wouldn't find it if Kathleen Peterson had merely fallen and struck her head.

The explanation could be critical testimony against Michael Peterson, on trial for first-degree murder.

Blood spatter expert Peter "Duane" Deaver took the witness stand Wednesday but did not get to the crux of his analysis before court recessed for the day. He did face a barrage of questions from the defense that seemed designed to rattle him and diminish his level of expertise in the eyes or jurors.

Defense lawyer David Rudolf challenged the witness's credentials, soliciting from Deaver that he did not have advanced degrees and has not published articles in scholarly journals, unlike the experts Rudolph is expected to call later.

To his credit, Deaver has testified often and has been analyzing blood stains at crime since 1988. He's the lead instructor on the subject at the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation.

"He has testified in 60 cases as an expert in his field. They can't all be wrong," prosecutor Jim Hardin Jr. said. Judge Orlando Hudson Jr. seemed to agree, granting the prosecution's motion to have Deaver declared a spatter expert.

Deaver gave jurors a dry and lengthy crash course in how experts evaluate blood stains, conduct tests and consult with each other to determine how a stain may have been made.

Blood that drops straight down, for example, tends to make a nearly circular dot. Blood that appears as tiny drops or specks typically suggests a great force was applied, he also explained.

And finally, blood that is "cast off" when a bloody weapon is wielded are deposited as streaks with telltale "tails" that could indicate the route and distance they traveled.

"Cast off" could become a key word in jurors' collective vocabulary when they finally debate Michael Peterson's guilt or innocence in September or October. Deaver is expected to testify this week that he saw distinct cast-off patterns that suggest a weapon was used by someone to beat 48-year-old Kathleen Peterson about the head.

Before he was even asked to give jurors the blood spatter lesson, Deaver first testified that he was not typically called on to re-create a crime scene, an apparent defensive move on the part of prosecutor Hardin.

Before the trial, the prosecution had constructed a life-size replica of the dimly lit stairwell where Kathleen Peterson died. In the defense's opening statement, Rudolph played the prosecution's own videotape of tests Deaver conducted in the mock stairwell using bloody sponges, a bloody wig and a fireplace poker.

Prosecutors believe Peterson, 59, used a fireplace poker, which was never found, to kill his wife. They say the couple had money problems, a large amount of debt and a life insurance policy for Kathleen Peterson worth $1.4 million. There has also been testimony about homosexual pornography on Michael Peterson's computer and an e-mail correspondence between him and a gay soldier. The two had planned a tryst for September 2001 that never materialized.

The prosecution also worked Wednesday to address the defense charge that police poorly secured the Peterson home and allowed many people to walk near the body. A police officer testified that Peterson had burst into the room and could not be stopped before he bent down to hold his dead wife.

Deaver testified that, despite his fears on his way to the scene that police and paramedics had trampled over potentially important evidence, he found very little in the way of contamination.

"I was very pleased to find that did not happen. The stairwell is in good condition," Deaver said.

However, because at least one police officer had stepped in the stairwell to take photographs, Deaver decided to focus on blood spatter on the walls in the stairwell rather than the steps in the stairwell and floors.

"I had less problems with the walls than anything else, so the walls were what I was mainly concerned with," Deaver testified.

Deaver is expected to be on the witness stand through Friday, and perhaps into Monday. Hardin indicated he intends to begin presenting evidence Monday that jurors should be allowed to hear about the 1985 death of Elizabeth Ratliff in Frankfurt, Germany.

Ratliff, a 43-year-old widow raising two daughters, was found dead at the bottom of a short flight of stairs on Nov. 25, 1985. At the time, Michael Peterson and his first wife lived nearby. There have been reports that Michael Peterson was one of the last people to see Ratliff alive, and that he took her home the night before her body was discovered.

German and U.S. military authorities concluded that Ratliff suffered a brain hemorrhage and struck her head when she collapsed. Her body was exhumed in April, however, and a North Carolina medical examiner who took a second look concluded that Ratliff was beaten to death.

The defense is expected to argue that the court should bar the evidence from Peterson's trial, but is prepared to address the medical examiner's findings and the prosecution's recent decision to bring up Ratliff's death as part of this case. Ratliff's adult daughters, who have lived with Michael Peterson since 1985 and call him "Dad," have been in court supporting Peterson and are expected to listen to testimony about their mother's death.

Testimony resumes Thursday at 9:30 a.m.