The owl theory, that offers an alternative explanation for the death of Kathleen Peterson on December 9, 2001 at her home in Durham's Forest Hills neighborhood, has received scant attention in the media in the aftermath of the conviction of Kathleen's husband Michael for her murder, and his ongoing appeal now wending its way through the judicial system.
The North Carolina General Assembly is considering a bill to ban public access to autopsy photographs. If the owl theory is to be placed in the public domain, now is the time.
On the evening of the incident, Michael Peterson found his wife Kathleen covered in blood lying at the foot of the staircase. Durham County prosecutors brought first- degree murder charges against Michael. After a lengthy trial, the jury found him guilty of beating Kathleen to death.
Evidence for a motive was produced, including a link to a possible murder in Germany , alleged bi-sexuality and credit card debt implying Michael was living off of Kathleen's income. But in this circumstantial web, the prosecution did not produce a murder weapon, but hypothesized it was a "blow poke" usually found by the fireplace. A relative of Kathleen's testified she had given the same blow poke to several family members, but the one she gave Kathleen was missing from the Peterson home.
Although defense attorney David Rudolph was able to establish that the wounds to Kathleen Peterson did not include subdural hemorrhage, contusions, abnormalities or fractures to the skull, brain or spine that would ordinarily occur from an attack by a weapon like the blow poke, the Orange County medical examiner remained steadfast that the wounds could have come from an attack with a similar weapon. Rudolph demonstrated that of the 250 beatings in North Carolina resulting in death in the past decade, all showed injuries absent on Kathleen Peterson's body.
Late in the trial, the blow poke was discovered in the Peterson home's garage covered in cobwebs. But the jury convicted Michael Peterson, despite the lack of a murder weapon and evidence that her wounds did not indicate a beating. A French documentary team produced a television film - The Staircase - on the trial that has aired on the Sundance Channel. In the film it is clear Rudolph was confident he would clear Peterson due to lack of evidence. In one telling scene, Rudolph and Peterson's brother (also an attorney) comment that the worst case would be a hung jury; the best an acquittal.
The key question then, is, in the absence of a murder weapon, and evidence that the wounds did not indicate a beating, what caused the injuries to the back of Kathleen Peterson's head that allowed the blood to seep from her body and cause her death?
The Owl Theory
The theory speculates that Kathleen Peterson had been drinking wine with Michael at the outdoor pool area of the house during the unseasonably mild evening. She left the pool area and retuned to the kitchen where she washed out her wine glass and left it to air dry. Before going to bed, she decided either to take out the trash, lock or retrieve something from her car, or turn out the floodlights lighting the house on the Kent Street side of the house. Michael remained out of earshot in the pool area on the Cedar Street side of the lot, approximately 100 yards away on the opposite side of the property.
Kathleen walked outside near two white artificial Christmas reindeer lit by floodlights. Here an owl (or owls) was lurking, hunting for prey at night. Suddenly, the owl, perhaps attracted by the reflection of her glasses or something she was wearing, swooped down on Kathleen, crashing into her head at great velocity and digging its talons into the back of her head. Unsure what had happened, she struggled to fend off the owl, lifting her arms to her head. The bird swept in again, its talons extending into her skin, digging deeper and stopping only at the skull. The impact of the boney toes on the feet of the owl caused lacerations by splitting her scalp. At the tips of the lacerations on the back of her head and elbows, her wounds reveal where talons would have dug in and hit the skull bone, but not crack the skull.
The force of the impact probably knocked her to the ground where she received marks on her nose and face. As she got up from the ground and started running, the owl assaulted her again, raking her head - either to force her away, or to grab the glasses on her face or head, which were reflecting the light from the floodlights. This second attack caused an avulsion (the peeled back skin on the left rear side of her head) large enough for blood to pour from the wound. The owl, whose talons were entwined in her hair, yanked its feet loose from her head, pulling hair loose from her scalp. It was all very swift, perhaps two seconds, causing no more than seven or eight lacerations as the owl hit her again and again on her head and elbows as she lifted her arms to ward off her attacker.
She ran to the front door as the owl gave up its grip. She slammed the front door, leaving a bloody hand print, and drops of blood on the sidewalk and the landing at the front door. There is a blood "swipe" on the door casing near the lock.
Kathleen ran into the house and down the corridor towards the kitchen (another drop of blood was found inside the front door). She was confused, not sure what happened to her, and was holding her hands to her head where her hair was yanked out after the attack by the owl's razor-like talons. In pain and confused, she fainted. She lay there bleeding, with blood now profusely flowing from her wounds. After an interval, perhaps an hour, she attempted to stand up and slipped in her own blood and hit her head against the molding of the bottom stair. The autopsy report shows this yoke-shaped laceration on the back of her lower neck.
Kathleen Peterson's wounds show a symmetrical parallel pattern of marks that look suspiciously like the marks left by a raptor when it strikes people with speed and flexible talons that can split the scalp and then extend into the flesh. Because they are of similar size, the wounds appear to be delivered all at one time.
When Michael Peterson came into the house he found Kathleen on the staircase lying in a pool of blood. He leaned over her to help her and got blood on his clothing. He then called 911.
Metro obtained Kathleen Peterson's autopsy photographs in order to bring this alternative theory to the public because the owl theory deserves the light of day. The wounds and blood patterns fit the theory, while the blow poke does not stand up to scrutiny as the murder weapon.
We are publishing this information because of the bill circulating in the NC House that calls for a ban on the publication of autopsy photographs set to begin July 1, 2005.
Justice demands full public disclosure of all evidence to protect the innocent, and to ensure trust in the judicial system.