November 28, 2022

The Horrific Autopsy Report Of Staircase Murder Victim Kathleen Peterson

In the early morning hours of December 9, 2001, authorities were called to the Durham, North Carolina home of Michael and Kathleen Peterson on reports of a fatal accident. As reported by Town & Country, Michael told authorities he and Kathleen spent the prior evening watching a movie, then sitting outside by the pool drinking wine. Michael said he remained outside for some time after Kathleen went inside to go to bed. When he went inside to join his wife, he was horrified to find her lying unconscious at the bottom of a staircase.

When authorities arrived on scene, Kathleen was declared dead. Town & Country reports that a medical examiner, who was present at the scene, made a preliminary determination that Kathleen’s apparent fall down the staircase was likely an accident. However, a more thorough examination, which was conducted by a coroner, revealed Kathleen’s injuries were far more complex than they initially appeared. At the time of her death, Kathleen Peterson was 48 years old. According to the autopsy report, the coroner found hair in both of Kathleen’s hands, which she appeared to have grasped prior to her death. She also had dried blood under her fingernails, on the bottoms of both feet, and on her face. The corner noted Kathleen had multiple abrasions and contusions throughout her face. She also had at least seven lacerations on the back of her scalp, several of which had slightly penetrated her skull. However, there were no actual skull fractures.

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She had several medications in her system

Although Kathleen Peterson did not have any skull fractures, she did have some subarachnoid hemorrhaging on two lobes of her brain. However, according to the autopsy, she did not have any other hemorrhaging or contusions of the brain. The coroner noted Kathleen’s neck was fractured near the left thyroid. As stated in the report, Kathleen had multiple contusions to her arms and hands. She also had two pine needles embedded in her hand. An examination of Kathleen Peterson’s internal organs did not reveal any abnormalities, with the exception of a small cyst on her right ovary, a small uterine fibroid, and a bulging cervical disc.

Toxicology tests revealed Kathleen’s blood alcohol level at the time the autopsy was performed was .07%. It was also concluded that she had diazepam, chlorpheniramine, cyclobenzaprine, and nicotine in her system at the time of her death. The coroner determined Kathleen’s cause of death was “severe concussive injury of the brain caused by multiple blunt force impacts of the head.” The coroner also noted heavy blood loss may have been a factor. As stated in the autopsy, the coroner determined the fatal injuries were “received as a result of beating.”

As he was the only person at the scene, and his account did not match the coroner’s conclusion, Town & Country reports Michael Peterson was indicted for the murder of his wife. However, he vehemently denied any involvement. 

It has been suggested Kathleen Peterson was attacked by an owl

Although the coroner concluded Kathleen Peterson’s death was caused by trauma to the head, the injuries were not deep enough to injure her brain. Therefore, as reported by The Wrap, prosecutors concluded Kathleen was struck with a hollow and relatively light fireplace tool called a blow poke. The tool, which was missing from its usual location near the Petersons’ fireplace, has two uses. In addition to repositioning logs, it can be used to blow air on a fire to keep it burning. According to The Wrap, the Petersons’ blow poke was eventually located, and forensic testing concluded it did not have any traces of blood. However, some people still believe it was the murder weapon.

Another theory, which has been suggested to explain the unusual injuries to Kathleen Peterson’s head, is that she was attacked by an owl in the stairwell. As explained by David S. Rudolf, who represented Michael during his trials, the so-called “owl theory” is largely circumstantial. Barred owls, which are known to be aggressive at times, have been seen in the woods near the Peterson home. Rudolf also said wounds on Kathleen’s head and face are consistent with a barred owl’s beak and talons. In Rudolf’s opinion, the theory is “pretty persuasive and credible,” although it was never presented in court.

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On October 10, 2003, Michael Peterson was found guilty of first-degree murder. He was subsequently sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole (per A&E).

Michael Peterson ultimately agreed to an Alford plea

On September 14, 2011, Town & Country reports that Michael Peterson was granted a new trial after his defense team proved an expert witness in his initial trial provided misleading testimony. He was ultimately released on $300,000 bond while awaiting his new trial. However, the conditions of his release included remaining on house arrest and being required to wear an ankle monitor. On February 24, 2017, Michael entered an Alford plea, which did not require him to admit guilt. Instead, he simply admitted prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him of the murder charge. Per the condition of the plea agreement, Town & Country Magazine reports Michael was sentenced to time served and was not required to return to prison.

Although Michael is now free, his guilt or innocence in Kathleen’s death remains a point of heated controversy. As reported by What to Watch, a similar death, which occurred in 1985, has only further proven Michael’s guilt in the minds of those who believe he is a killer. In November 1985, a woman named Elizabeth Ratliff died in what was determined to be an accidental fall down a staircase in Germany. Michael was the last known person to see her alive. Michael’s attorney contends it was simply an unfortunate coincidence.