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Jurors make visit to bloody staircase

By Matt Bean
Court TV

The back stairwell in Michael Peterson's house where his wife died
The back stairwell in Michael Peterson's house where his wife died

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(Court TV) -- Eighteen stairs, a small landing, and a whole lot of blood. That's the scene jurors in Michael Peterson's murder trial got to see on a field trip to the novelist's Durham, North Carolina, home Thursday.

"They were all serious, all taking notes, all consumed in the atmosphere of the stairwell," said Demorris Lee, a reporter from the Raleigh News and Observer who was permitted to shadow jurors on their visit.

The bloody back stairwell linking the second-floor rooms to the first-floor kitchen in the home Michael Peterson once shared with his wife, Kathleen Peterson, is the central scene in the novelist's murder trial. Until Thursday, jurors had only seen it in pictures and video.

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"They were very curious about how far up they can go up that stairwell," said the reporter. "Many of them went up to about the fourth, fifth step and would turn back and look, even wave their hands to see, look behind them to see if they can fall or if they can possibly catch themselves."

Prosecutors claim Peterson, 59, bludgeoned his wife of five years to death, then made the death look like an accident. Their 50-witness case relied heavily on physical evidence, from the series of seven lacerations on the back of the victim's head, to the copious amounts of blood found at the scene, to blood spatters that suggest she had been beaten with an object that shed "cast off" droplets 9 feet above the floor.

Peterson says he was out by the pool alone smoking a cigarette the night of December 9, 2001, and returned to the kitchen to find his wife dead at the base of the stairs. One defense witness testified that Kathleen Peterson, 48, might have fallen twice, hitting her head multiple times each fall.

Blood spatters

After being shuttled the two miles from the courthouse to the home in a pair of white vans, jurors jumped at the opportunity to weigh the conflicting accounts for themselves, taking abundant notes that could help them determine whether the stairwell was indeed a crime scene, or just the site of an unfortunate, and fatal, accident.

During the hour they spent in the mansion, they explored the kitchen, the sitting area where Michael Peterson was kept after police arrived, and the fireplace, where prosecutors have suggested Peterson selected a fireplace poker as the murder weapon.

One of their chief concerns was the blood evidence.

"A lot of them paid attention to the blood spatter, even kneeling down, looking down, squatting, looking at the dried blood that was on the molding of the doorway," said Lee, "Looking for spatter on the walls outside of the doorway."

Wednesday night, Peterson's defense lawyer, David Rudolf, asked his investigator to illuminate some of the spatter areas with a spotlight.

Cramped quarters

On Thursday, just before the on-site visit, Rudolf called his investigator to the stand and suggested to jurors some potential focal points for their visit.

"Did you set up some lights last night so jurors could see with their own eyes whether or not those spatters ... all were in a line or heading in the same direction or not?" he asked.

Rudolf, who had requested the visit, said the move was worthwhile because photos of the scene shown in court simply couldn't convey the cramped nature of the back stairwell.

"We thought it was important they get a sense of the space, whether what the district attorney says happened could have happened," Rudolf told reporters outside the home. "That's really important for us, to be able to show the jurors that what they saw in court is not necessarily what the space looks like."

Earlier on Thursday, an employee of Rudolf's law firm read a statement into the record from Christina Tomasetti, a friend of Peterson's son, Todd, who visited the home the night of the murder.

When Tomasetti left the home at about 10:20 p.m., she saw the defendant in the kitchen opening a bottle of wine in preparation for watching a movie with his wife.

She returned at 2:50 that morning to find fire trucks and police cars on the scene.

"We found out that Ms. Peterson had fallen down the stairs and suffered a massive head injury," Tomasetti said in the statement.

"Michael Peterson was shaky and covered in blood. He was very upset and mumbling, 'Oh my God.'"

Rudolf told reporters outside the house that testimony will resume Monday at 9:30 with renowned forensic scientist Henry Lee.

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