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Officer: Three 'red flags' at scene of Peterson death

By John Springer

Defense attorney David Rudolf, right, waits for former Durham police spokesman Sgt. Fran Borden to look over newspapers columns written by his client, Michael Peterson.
Defense attorney David Rudolf, right, waits for former Durham police spokesman Sgt. Fran Borden to look over newspapers columns written by his client, Michael Peterson.

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DURHAM, North Carolina (Court TV) -- When he arrived on the scene of Kathleen Peterson's death, a retired police sergeant noted three "red flags" that made him suspicious, although he testified Monday in the murder trial of Peterson's husband that he lacked some key information at the time.

The witness, Fran Borden, said that when he was summoned to 1810 Cedar St. on December 9, 2001, he was told that he would be investigating the death of a woman who fell out of a wheelchair and down a staircase.

Borden told jurors that when he entered the Peterson home, he noticed blood on a kitchen cabinet and on a drawer handle. That was the first of the three red flags, he said.

The second was the amount of blood on and around Kathleen Peterson, whose body was found at the bottom of a dimly lit staircase in the Petersons' 11,000-square-foot home.

The third flag, he said, was that Kathleen Peterson's head and spine appeared to be in alignment, even though police initially believed she fell down many steps.

"I squatted in the stairwell and looked up the stairs, trying to visualize every possible scenario how this woman could have come down those stairs, landed in the position where she landed, and where did all that blood come from," said Borden.

"It didn't jibe. It didn't fit," said the prosecution witness, who retired in January after 26 years on the force.

Lawyers for defendant Michael Peterson claim Borden's conclusions did not add up because he wasn't aware of some important facts.

For one thing, defense lawyer David Rudolf said during cross-examination, no one claimed that Kathleen Peterson fell down a whole flight of stairs. For another, police officers who reached the house ahead of Borden did not tell him that the scene might have already been contaminated.

Michael Peterson's son Todd, now 27, could have transferred blood to the cabinet and drawer when a police officer permitted him to get a drink for the defendant. Another police officer permitted Michael and Todd Peterson to caress Kathleen Peterson's blood-soaked body, and then each other.

Michael Peterson, left, and his son Todd Peterson speak during a break in court proceedings last week.
Michael Peterson, left, and his son Todd Peterson speak during a break in court proceedings last week.

"That information could have been helpful. I did not have it," Borden testified.

The defense, which questioned the only witness of the day twice as long as the prosecution, also used Borden to put into the record Michael Peterson's steady criticism of the Durham Police Department in 1998 and 1999.

Borden, the department's spokesperson at the time, said he was aware that Peterson, an author and columnist, had written numerous newspaper columns that painted police as incompetent. Peterson wrote sarcastically that local criminals were apparently smarter than police because the department couldn't seem to solve anything.

When prosecutor Freda Black tried to get Borden to testify that he did not conspire with 15 other police officers on the scene to exact revenge on Peterson the night his wife died, Judge Orlando Hudson Jr. upheld a defense objection. Rudolf argued successfully that the columns could have created police bias but that the defense was not claiming Michael Peterson was framed.

The defense says Kathleen Peterson, 48, either blacked out or slipped after a night of drinking and struck her head on molding at the bottom of the dark staircase. Then, according to the defense scenario, she lay bleeding, came to, slipped in her blood and hit her head again.

Prosecutors believe Michael Peterson killed his wife to get her $1.4 million life insurance policy and end a cycle of unbridled spending that created $142,000 in credit card debt. The prosecution has not yet presented the heart of its case, testimony from forensic pathologists that Kathleen Peterson's head injuries are inconsistent with a fall down stairs.

Borden's testimony echoed that of other police witnesses, who said the amount of blood seemed to be excessive for a fall down the stairs.

"I thought something else happened. That's the bottom line," Borden said.

When testimony resumes at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, prosecutors are expected to call more police officers to the witness stand. Borden was the prosecution's 16th witness.

In a surprising moment Monday, the prosecutor asked Borden a question that seemed to jolt the courtroom. Was he aware, Black asked, that Todd Peterson was having an affair with a woman described in police reports as his girlfriend?

The judge struck the question from the record after the defense objected that no evidence had been presented that indicated Todd Peterson and the married woman, Christine Tomassetti, were anything more than friends who went to a party with a large group of people.

Black said outside the presence of the jury that Todd Peterson told members of Kathleen Peterson's family that he intended to have sex with Tomassetti at his father's home that night.

Todd Peterson sat forward in his chair in the front row of the gallery but did not otherwise react to the salacious exchange.

"It shows the dire straits the prosecution's case is in," Todd Peterson remarked to as court adjourned for the day.

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