The murder of Kathleen Peterson

Michael Iver Peterson and Kathleen Hunt Atwater Peterson

Michael Iver Peterson borned Tennessee in 1943; he worked both as a novelist and journalist.

December 9th, 2001 his second wife Kathleen Hunt Atwater died in their Forest Hills mansion, North Carolina.

Kathleen was found lifeless at the bottom of the service stair.

In 2003 Peterson was found guilty of first-degree murder but after eight years, he was granted a new trial after the judge ruled a critical prosecution witness gave misleading testimony. 

In 2017, he submitted an Alford Plea to the reduced charge of manslaughter.

The judge sentenced him to a maximum of 86 months in prison with credit for time previously served.

He was freed because he had already served more time than the sentence.

Kathleen’s case is the subject of the documentary “The Staircase” by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.

The murder weapon

In 2014 I analyzed the case focusing on the murder weapon; the prosecution said that Peterson killed Kathleen with a blow poke, a custom-made fireplace poker that was missing from the house at the time of the investigation.

Peterson’s defence said that Kathleen had fallen down the stairs but I disagree.

Michael Iver Peterson did not use a special murder weapon to kill his wife Kathleen, he used his bare hands.

According to the post mortem examination, Kathleen suffered multiple lacerations of the head consistent with a flat object, that flat object was a step of the stair against which her head impacted several times, not because she fell down the stairs but because Michael Peterson slammed her head against those stairs.

At that time Michael Iver Peterson has grabbed his wife Kathleen by the hairs of her frontal area with his right hand and he had been slamming the back of her head against a step of the service wooden stair, again and again, until she died.

During the assault, he once grabbed her contemporary by her hairs with his right hand and by her throat with his left hand, in that occasion his thumb produced the fracture of the superior cornu of the left thyroid cartilage of Kathleen’s throat.

The autopsy report

The number, severity, locations and orientation of these injuries are inconsistent with a fall down the stairs; instead they are indicative of multiple impacts received as a result of beating.

Kathleen’s head


  • Blunt force trauma of the head;
  • Multiple (at least 7) deep, complex lacerations and avulsions to the posterior scalp;
  • Multiple contusions consistent with lacerations;
  • Multiple small abrasions and contusions on the face;
  • Early acute ischemic neuronal necrosis;
  • No abnormalities of the brain.


  • One fracture with associated hemorrhage of the left superior cornu of the thyroid cartilage in the neck;
  • No other neck fractures.


  • None long bone fracture;
  • None rib fracture.


  • Contusions of back, posterior arms, wrists and hands;
  • Note: Hair in left hand — hair in right hand. 

My reconstruction of the murder

On both Kathleen’s hands, on the bottom steps of the stairs and on the Diet Coke can found in the patio, that Michael Peterson drank from, were found several cut hairs by the crime scene operators.

These cut hairs were from the frontal area of Kathleen head and were cut off by Michael Peterson right hand and by Kathleen hands when she tried to free her hairs from his hand, for this reason they found hairs on her hands too.

If these hairs were from the back area of her head, investigators should have found just crushed hairs, not cut hairs.

It could be helpful to check the exhibits to see if they collected hairs with their roots to support this reconstruction.

The big amount of blood found inside Michael Peterson’s pants has a simple explanation:.

Michael Peterson attacked his wife twice, the second time he assaulted Kathleen, he sat on her upper legs close to her waist.

The crime scene

After the first attack a lot of blood drained on Kathleen’s waist, she then unexpectedly recovered and stood up.

At that point, Peterson attacked her a second time and, while slamming again her head against the stairs, his pants absorbed the blood from Kathleen’s clothes because he was sitting astride on her waist in order to stop her from moving.

There were no fractures on Kathleen’s skull because she was slammed against a wooden surface.

Kathleen had contusions on her posterior arms and back because she hit her posterior arms and back when her head was slammed against the stairs.

She had defensive contusions on her wrists and hands because she fought back at Peterson and finally she had no contusions on her ribs, legs, feet or knees because she didn’t fall down the stairs.

That explains

This reconstruction explains:.

  1. all the contusions on Kathleen body;
  2. the distribution of the bloodstains found in the area of the murder;
  3. the presence of low and medium velocity blood spatters on the scene;
  4. the crucial absence of any cast off on the ceiling or on the walls;
  5. the absence of any pattern of a weapon on the lacerations on Kathleen’s scalp;
  6. the absence of defensive wounds with a pattern of a weapon;
  7. the absence of collateral damages with any pattern of a weapon in the narrow area where she was killed;
  8. the impossibility to recover a weapon and
  9. the absence of fractures on Kathleen’s face too. Especially in a narrow area, a hit from behind that is able to cause a scalp laceration usually produces fractures of the nasal or cheek bones of the victim due to the crush against the wall or against the stairs followed the rebound of the blow to the head.

The blood found on the walkway leading to the house dropped from Michael Peterson bloody hands.

Weapons reflect killers’ personality

Weapons reflect killers’ personality; Michael Peterson is a kind of contemporary Popeye, for his face, his smocking the pipe and his muscular body and, as Popeye, to kill he used a personal weapon, his hands, at least twice.

Michael Peterson was very proud of his muscles and often put them on display wearing just a tank top, according to the pictures seen in the documentary “The Staircase”.


Elizabeth Radliff

In 1985, Michael Peterson killed Elizabeth Ratliff in the same way.

Elizabeth was found dead at the bottom of the stairs of her house in Germany.

She had suffered a fracture at the base of the skull, at the time Michael Peterson was younger and stronger and the surface against which her head was slammed was a floor made of terra-cotta tiles, not wood, like in Kathleen’s case.

It could be quite interesting to ask people that saw and cleaned that first crime scene if they had found hairs on the scene.

Ursula Franco attended the University of Pisa, Italy, obtaining her degree in Medicine in 1991.

She worked as a Medical Researcher at the Department of Neurophysiopathology for the University of Siena and Pisa, Italy. She also worked as Medical Researcher for the University at Buffalo, New York, USA. 

She worked as MD for the Italian Ministry of Justice in the Penal Colony of Gorgona Island, Livorno, Italy.​She then attended the University of Roma obtaining a Master in Crime Science.

She is a certified Statement Analyst I.

She has worked as criminology consultant in several murder cases. She focused her work on domestic murders, wrongful convictions and suicides mistaken for homicides.

She is in the Forensic Team of the Cold Case Foundation as Medical Death Investigative Consultant.

Biography of doc. Ursula Franco
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