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Judge allows computer evidence against writer accused of killing wife

By John Springer
Court TV.com

Computer investigator Todd Markley watches assistant defense attorney Thomas Maher flip through hundreds of thumbnail images from Michael Peterson's computer.
Computer investigator Todd Markley watches assistant defense attorney Thomas Maher flip through hundreds of thumbnail images from Michael Peterson's computer.

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DURHAM, North Carolina (Court TV) -- Jurors in the murder trial of Michael Peterson will hear about his sexual interest in men, homosexual pornography found on his computer and his contact by e-mail with a male prostitute, a judge ruled Thursday.

There may not be any evidence that Kathleen Peterson and her husband fought about his sexual orientation or that she even knew what the novelist saw on the Internet in his study, but Judge Orlando Hudson Jr. agreed with prosecutors that the e-mail and intimate information may rebut defense claims that the couple's marriage was a "storybook" one.

The ruling was a huge victory for the prosecution. For the defense, it will likely be a key issue on appeal if Peterson is convicted of first-degree murder.

Prosecutors contend that financial strains and the defendant's bisexuality offer motives for him to beat Kathleen Peterson to death in her home on December 9, 2001. The defense claims the 48-year-old woman died from an accidental fall down stairs.

Jurors have not yet heard about the e-mail contact Michael Peterson had with a male escort named "Brad" as late as September 2001. Outside of the jury's presence, Hudson ruled that prosecutors may call "Brad" as a witness and present evidence about images of men investigators recovered from Peterson's computer.

Defense lawyer Thomas Maher argued unsuccessfully that Peterson would not get a fair trial if jurors hear that he may be bisexual and become biased against him. Unless prosecutors can show that Kathleen Peterson knew or cared about her husband's fantasies, Maher complained that such evidence might only provoke an "emotional reaction" against Peterson, without actually advancing a motive.

As for the e-mail relationship with the male escort, the hearing revealed that Peterson had never actually met "Brad." Prosecutors, however, said the evidence will show that the novelist told the prostitute that he was "very bi" and what he liked and did not like to do sexually. Those e-mails haven't come into evidence yet, but the defense claims that Peterson insisted in one e-mail to "Brad" that he loved the woman he was married to and wouldn't jeopardize that.

"I've got a dynamite wife who I love. I'm sorry. I like men and women," Peterson wrote in one e-mail, according to Maher.

Michael Peterson
Michael Peterson

"Brad knows about Kathleen Peterson," Maher argued. "The e-mails say nothing about a desire to harm his wife ... If even one juror looks at Mr. Peterson and says, 'Oh, my God. This guy's gay,' Mr. Peterson has been denied a fair trial."

Assistant District Attorney David Saacks said the e-mails and photos of men could support a motive, particularly if Kathleen Peterson found them on the computer and confronted her husband.

"Clearly, he's looking for a relationship outside the marriage. That's the point," Saacks said. "This is marital infidelity. In that respect, it clearly goes to motive."

Nortel Networks co-worker Helen Prislinger previously testified that Kathleen Peterson was expecting an e-mail from her that night and that it was sent to Michael Peterson's e-mail address at his wife's request.

There was no evidence, however, that the e-mail was actually read. An attachment to the e-mail was not opened before Kathleen Peterson died, a prosecution witness testified during the hearing.

Noting that most of the e-mails the prosecution intends to introduce were retrieved from a part of Peterson's computer hard drive that Kathleen Peterson couldn't access, Maher said that it would be "pure supposition" to suggest she found something on the computer that so angered her that she confronted her husband.

"That's a whole lot of maybes without any evidentiary support," Maher said.

When testimony before the jury resumed Thursday afternoon, the president of an Ohio-based company called CompuSleuth gave jurors a 30-minute primer on how computers store even "deleted" information. Jurors were told that 1,165 "e-mail fragments" were analyzed and that there references to visits to 8,700 different Web sites in the guts of Peterson's computer.

Jurors have heard nothing so far about "Brad" or visits by someone using Peterson's computer to Web sites depicting men, some engaged in sexual acts.

CompuSleuth consultant Todd Markley did testify, however, about e-mails that the prosecution believes support the theory that the Petersons were having financial difficulties. Early in the trial, now in its sixth week, jurors learned that for several years before Kathleen Peterson died, the Petersons carried $145,000 in credit card debt and were spending more than they earned.

Eleven days before his wife died, Michael Peterson e-mailed his first wife in Germany to express concern that their adult sons, Clayton and Todd Peterson, were carrying huge credit card debt and monthly interest payments. Michael Peterson urged Patricia Peterson to consider taking out a $30,000 home equity loan to help their sons out.

"I am worried sick about them," he wrote. "It is simply not possible for me to discuss this with Kathleen."

In another e-mail, Peterson wrote about the stress his wife was under due to layoffs at her employer, Nortel Networks. The prosecution contends that Peterson was worried his wife would lose her $145,000-a-year job because he had little or no income at the time.

"Poor Kathleen is undergoing the tortures of the damned at Nortel. They've layed [sic] off 45,000 people," Peterson wrote in a December 3, 200l, e-mail to a family friend. "She's a survivor and in no trouble, but the stress is monumental there."

When testimony resumes Friday, jurors are expected to hear all day about Michael Peterson's e-mail.


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