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Prosecution focuses on poverty, porn in murder trial

By John Springer
Court TV

Michael Peterson, center, confers with his attorneys, David Rudolf, left, and Thomas Maher, right, during a break in his trial.
Michael Peterson, center, confers with his attorneys, David Rudolf, left, and Thomas Maher, right, during a break in his trial.

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DURHAM, North Carolina (Court TV) -- In the months before she died, Kathleen Peterson was washing down Valium with wine as she grew increasingly worried about money and feared losing her $145,000-a-year job, her sister testified Thursday.

Witness Candace Zamperini said that she and others in the family urged Peterson to find another job, but Peterson felt sure she could not match her high salary at Nortel Networks somewhere else. But she and her husband wanted to remain in their 11,000-square-foot mansion in the affluent Forest Hills section of Durham.

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Prosecutors are trying to prove that Kathleen Peterson's husband, novelist Michael Peterson, was equally concerned about his wife's possible loss of income, so much so that money could have been his motive for causing her December 9, 2001, death.

The prosecution claims the defendant, 59, beat his 48-year-old wife to death because he stood to get $1.4-million from her life insurance policy.

If jurors fail to buy that theory, prosecutors hope the panel of eight women and four men will find a motive in homosexual pornography found on Peterson's computer and testimony from a male prostitute about a sexual liaison that was discussed but never consummated.

Like much of the testimony presented over nine weeks, jurors will have to wait to hear Zamperini's testimony. Hers was heard today outside the jury's presence as Hudson held a hearing to address defense objections.

The defense has lost most of the legal skirmishes, but the hearings have provided Peterson's lawyers a chance to preview just about everything coming out of the mouths of the prosecution's 47 witnesses so far.

Based on her testimony at Thursday's hearing, jurors will learn next week or the week after that Kathleen Peterson:

• Expressed concern about losing her job, the falling value of her company stock and layoffs occurring all around her;

• Complained of having headaches, feeling run-down and having no time to visit a doctor;

• Started becoming financially frugal to the point of forcing her mother to take the subway with her wheelchair rather than a cab during a family trip to Paris;

• Wanted to find a smaller house, but Michael Peterson did not;

• Seemed stress-free only when she was drinking, taking Valium or doing both together.

A similar death in Germany

Most of Kathleen Peterson's complaints about being unhappy stemmed from money and work concerns, Zamperini said. The prosecution is not expected to bring on any witnesses who saw or heard Kathleen and Michael Peterson fight with each other.

"She always gave me the impression money was a big concern in her life," Zamperini said. "It was always about work, what Nortel's stock price was at, people she had to lay off."

Early in the trial, the defense presented evidence that the Petersons' net worth vastly outweighed the family's debt. Peterson's lawyers also noted that even if Kathleen Peterson lost her job, her company had a significant severance program and she had deferred hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation that she could draw from if necessary.

Margaret, left, and Martha Ratliff listen to testimony about their mother Elizabeth Ratliff's 1985 death in Germany.
Margaret, left, and Martha Ratliff listen to testimony about their mother Elizabeth Ratliff's 1985 death in Germany.

Zamperini will eventually testify in front of the jury, but her late sister's financial worries are not all she will talk about. Prosecutors are expected to ask Zamperini about a fireplace poker she gave her sister as a gift many years ago that cannot be located.

Prosecutors believe the poker, or something like it, was the murder weapon. The defense contends that Kathleen Peterson either slipped or blacked out and struck her head several times in a narrow, dimly lit stairwell off the kitchen.

After a four-day break over the Labor Day weekend, prosecutors will call a medical examiner to testify about autopsies performed on Kathleen Peterson's body and the recently exhumed body of a woman who died in a similar manner in Germany in 1985.

Wounds on the head of Kathleen Peterson and the other woman, Elizabeth Ratliff, are similar and are inconsistent with falls down staircases, according to prosecution experts. Ratliff was a neighbor and friend of Michael Peterson when her body was found at the bottom of a flight of stairs on November 25, 1985.

Amy Beth Berner, Ratliff's friend, testified in front of the jury Thursday that Michael Peterson told her Ratliff suffered a brain aneurysm and fell down the stairs.

"Did he give you an indication of how he would know she had an aneurysm?" prosecutor Freda Black asked.

Berner said Peterson did not tell her, but other witnesses have said Peterson mentioned that Ratliff -- like his wife 16 years later -- had been having headaches in the days and weeks leading up to her death.

A sister's regret

On cross-examination, defense lawyer Thomas Maher pressed Berner about why she never went to authorities with her suspicions. Berner said she was traumatized, but acknowledged that neither she nor her husband, an Air Force major, reported what they suspected.

Berner explained that she thought authorities would realize that the scene did not look like an accident and would do a proper investigation.

"It was obvious to me even standing down there [by the stairs] and seeing all the blood. I figured they'd go up there and look," Berner said. "It's a scary thing to go to police and say, 'I think there's foul play here.' "

When Berner testified that she had vivid "flashbacks" about what she observed at the scene, Maher pounced.

Assistant district attorney Freda Black grimaces as defense attorney David Rudolf presses down on the bloody sweatpants Kathleen Peterson was wearing the night she died .
Assistant district attorney Freda Black grimaces as defense attorney David Rudolf presses down on the bloody sweatpants Kathleen Peterson was wearing the night she died .

"Flashbacks? Have you been having flashbacks?" the defense lawyer asked.

"They are very vivid images. Some of them are in color," Berner replied.

Berner did not tell the jury what she had testified in a hearing outside their presence: that Michael Peterson once told her that he was in the CIA and had murdered someone "point-blank" while serving in Vietnam. The statement may have been too inflammatory for the prosecution to present.

When the prosecution began a redirect examination of Berner that veered into new territory, the defense objected and Hudson sent the jury out.

"You all know you have to be careful with this witness. I want this witness to testify and come down off the stand," Hudson said sternly.

There were no further questions for Berner.

Berner told Court TV during a live interview outside the courthouse that not expressing her suspicions about Ratliff's death to authorities until 2002 is the biggest regret of her life.

Testimony resumes at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. The trial is being broadcast by Court TV.


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