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Disturbing images of body shown to jury at novelist's murder trial

By John Springer

Evidence technician Dan George shows Michael Peterson's shorts from the night Kathleen Peterson died to the jury during the murder trial of Michael Peterson.
Evidence technician Dan George shows Michael Peterson's shorts from the night Kathleen Peterson died to the jury during the murder trial of Michael Peterson.

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DURHAM, North Carolina (Court TV) -- If a picture says a thousand words, North Carolina prosecutors may have advanced their murder case against novelist Michael Peterson significantly last week by showing jurors a video depicting Kathleen Peterson's lifeless body at the bottom of a flight of stairs.

Prosecutor Jim Hardin Jr. presented the disturbing images to the jury twice -- once uninterrupted and then with the added narration of the Durham police crime scene technician who shot the tape.

Jurors watched the silent tape intently. A few shifted in their seats when close-ups of the body were shown, but none took their eyes off the disturbing image of the 48-year-old victim. Kathleen Peterson's mouth hung open and her eyes were only partly shut as she lay on her back at the bottom of a dimly lit, blood-soaked stairwell.

From the tape, jurors got their best view yet of the large amount of blood on and around the body, which a number of police officers said made them suspicious of foul play. Jurors could also see Michael Peterson's sneakers and socks lying next to the body -- which has yet to be explained by either side. A heap of bloody towels, paper towels and blood on the walls that appeared to be smeared also were visible.

The crime scene technician, Dan George, testified that the defendant, 59-year-old author and former columnist Michael Peterson, raced through the kitchen and bent down to touch his deceased spouse before police could stop him. The testimony is in stark contrast to a defense claim that police did nothing to stop Peterson and his son, Todd, from hugging Kathleen Peterson, inferring that police had no problem with it.

George, however, cast doubt on whether Michael Peterson was trying to caress his wife. Peterson did not try to lift her head away from a wall of the stairwell and didn't seem to be pulling her close. Jurors made notes furiously as George described this scene.

The testimony may be setting up a prosecution argument that Michael Peterson was contaminating the crime scene to throw police off and lend support to his claim that Kathleen Peterson fell and struck her head.

Michael Peterson
Michael Peterson

According to George, Michael Peterson was "moaning and groaning" at one point and openly sobbing as he sat on a landing next to Kathleen Peterson's body. Michael Peterson's adult son Todd, now 27, had to physically pry the defendant away from the body and escort him to a couch inside the adjacent kitchen. George used a mannequin designed to teach people cardiopulmonary resuscitation to demonstrate how Peterson held his wife.

"Mr. Peterson came running in and continued straight to the body ... It happened so fast," George said.

As court adjourned for the weekend, prosecutors were in the midst of a tedious but necessary process of marking, identifying and submitting physical evidence collected by George.

Jurors saw Michael Peterson's sneakers, socks, shorts and a navy blue T-shirt he was wearing the night he claims he found his wife sprawled on the floor. George testified, however, that he did not take into evidence some items, including a telephone, marked with blood. The defense has yet to cross-examine him, but will get its chance Monday.

Among many things, they may ask George about his testimony that Michael Peterson's clothes were "moist" with blood when he collected them. Other police witnesses have said the blood appeared to be dry, which the prosecution believes indicates he waited some time after Kathleen Peterson sustained her fatal head wounds before calling 911.

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