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North Carolina Court of Appeals Holds Michael Peterson Entitled to New Trial

Today, in the case of State v. Peterson, a panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals (Hunter, Robert C.StroudErvin) unanimously affirmed the trial court's order granting Michael Peterson's motion for appropriate relief and granting him a new trial.

Following a highly publicized trial, Peterson was convicted in 2003 of the first degree murder of his wife, Kathleen Peterson, and was sentenced to life in prison.  The State's theory at trial was that Peterson intentionally killed his wife by striking her repeatedly with a fireplace blowpoke, causing her to fall down a staircase.  Peterson, on the other hand, contended that his wife died as a result of an accidental fall.

In February 2011, Peterson filed a motion for appropriate relief ("MAR") based on alleged newly discovered evidence concerning misrepresentations made at trial by one of the State's key witnesses, State Bureau of Investigation Agent Duane Deaver, who had testified as an expert in bloodstain pattern analysis.  The newly discovered evidence concerned, among other things, Agent Deaver's representations regarding the number of cases involving bloodstain analysis in which he had participated, the number of reports he had written in cases involving bloodstain analysis, the number of times he had qualified as an expert witness in bloodstain analysis, and the number of times he had been to a potential crime scene involving an alleged accidental fall.  At the conclusion of the hearing on the MAR in December 2011, the trial court granted the MAR, vacated Peterson's conviction, and granted him a new trial.  The State appealed to the Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the State contended in part that Peterson was not entitled to a new trial because he failed to establish all of the prerequisites needed to prevail on a MAR based on newly discovered evidence.  There are seven elements which a defendant must establish in order to prevail on a MAR:
that the witness or witnesses will give newly discovered evidence,

  1. that such newly discovered evidence is probably true,

  2. that it is competent, material and relevant,

  3. that due diligence was used and proper means were employed to procure the testimony at the trial,

  4. that the newly discovered evidence is not merely cumulative,

  5. that it does not tend only to contradict a former witness or to impeach or discredit him, and

  6. that it is of such a nature as to show that on another trial a different result will probably be reached and that the right will prevail.

The Court of Appeals held that the evidence of Agent Deaver's misrepresentations concerning his qualifications satisfied the seven criteria.  As to the first and second elements, numerous witnesses testified at the MAR hearing regarding Agent Deaver's misrepresentations about his qualifications and the manner in which this evidence was discovered after Peterson's conviction, and the State did not contest this evidence.  Third, the evidence was relevant and material in that it was logically related to issues at Peterson's trial—specifically, Agent Deaver's testimony and, relatedly, his credibility; further, this evidence had a direct bearing on the issues at trial.  Fourth, Peterson attempted to procure this testimony at trial through extensive voir dire questioning.  Fifth, the evidence was not cumulative because Peterson was unable to demonstrate this evidence at trial.

Sixth, the evidence constituted much more than impeachment evidence.  The Court held that due to the importance of Agent Deaver's testimony, the evidence concerning his qualifications would have completely undermined the credibility of the State’s entire theory of the case, as he was the only witness to describe to the jury how he believed Peterson killed his wife, and was the only witness to testify that the bloodstains indicated that Peterson had tried to not only clean up the scene but was also close to his wife at the time she sustained her injuries.  Finally, as to the seventh element, the Court held that had Agent Deaver's testimony been undermined, the jury would probably not have unanimously agreed on a guilty verdict based on this evidence.  Therefore, the Court held that the trial court had not erred in vacating Peterson's conviction and ordering a new trial. 

The Court of Appeals also rejected the State's argument that if the Court did not reverse the MAR order, it should, in the alternative, remand the case for a new hearing.  The State argued that the trial court erred in precluding the State from asking specific questions of Peterson's experts and in granting Peterson's motion in limine regarding certain experts the State intended to call.  However, the Court of Appeals held that the State was trying to collaterally establish that the jury would have reached the same verdict based on evidence not introduced at trial, and the trial court had properly excluded this evidence because it was beyond the scope of the MAR hearing.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the decision of the trial court.

Copyright © 2020 Womble Bond Dickinson (US) LLP All Rights Reserved.National Law Review, Volume III, Number 197


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