Spoiler Alert! Spoilers for “The Staircase” ahead.
Chapter 4: A Prosecution Trickery
A Mortifying Development.
For months prior to the start of the trial, the prosecution had known about Liz Ratliff’s death in Germany. Our nightmare was that this evidence would be allowed at Mike’s trial. We prepared by going to Germany to interview witnesses and secure the relevant records. But we knew that if this evidence was presented to a jury, our defense would be severely prejudiced. And the prosecution knew this too.
Just three weeks before the trial was to begin, the prosecutors suddenly decided to exhume Liz Ratliff’s body and to bring it back to North Carolina to be autopsied by Deborah Radisch, the Assistant Medical Examiner who had performed the autopsy on Kathleen. It put us in a difficult position. Liz’s daughters, Margaret and Martha, were horrified at the prospect of their mother’s body being dug up 18 years after her death. They were completely opposed. But if we filed a motion to prohibit the exhumation, we would look like we were trying to hide something. The press would be all over us about that. And the judge would probably allow the exhumation to proceed anyway. So, Tom Maher and I prevailed upon Margaret and Martha to allow the exhumation to go forward.
What the prosecution did then was to make the entire process into a prejudicial publicity tour. Reporters, over our objection, were allowed to film the actual exhumation. The video played on all the local stations. Liz’s body was not brought to the local morgue for the autopsy; it was driven 1200 miles back to North Carolina in a police caravan, with the press covering the caravan every mile of the way. When the caravan finally arrived, the press was permitted, again over our objection, to film Liz’s casket being taken out of the police van and brought into the Medical Examiner’s office. The TV news that night was filled with the images. The entire jury pool had been intentionally prejudiced by the prosecution. It was excruciating to watch.
But the worst was yet to come. Although Liz Ratliff only had a couple of small lacerations on her scalp, Deborah Radisch concluded in her autopsy report that “the inflicted trauma is clearly from a homicidal assault.” I had read many autopsy reports of blunt force trauma resulting in death, some prepared by Radisch. None had ever concluded that the injuries were from “a homicidal assault.” That was not a medical diagnosis – it was a closing argument. And when the judge denied our motion to seal the report until he ruled on whether the Ratliff evidence would be permitted, Radisch’s language had the desired effect. “Liz Ratliff killed as a result of a homicidal assault” was the lead on every TV station that night.
The prosecution had succeeded in intentionally poisoning the jury pool just a few days before jury selection would begin. When we asked for a pretrial hearing to determine whether the Ratliff evidence would be admitted at Mike’s trial, the prosecution claimed it had not yet decided whether to use that evidence and opposed the hearing. The judge denied our request. The writing was on the wall. We had to assume that evidence was going to be known to the jury one way or another. It was an absolutely devastating development.
With all due respect, I do not believe the medical examiner was giving a closing argument. She was clear-manner of death was homicide, method was homicidal assault. Having worked side by side with a medical examiner during autopsies I have heard this conclusion before. That being said, it doesn’t mean they can’t be wrong. The other thing I noticed during a scene is that someone said how do you hit someone in the top of the head? That is a lot easier than falling down the stairs and hitting the very top of your head.
The point is, that’s an opinion, not a fact!! They cannot prove thats how she died, and therefore it shouldnt be included in the report! I hope you never find yourself in a similar situation. Someone’s OPINION determining your life and future. That’s not fair. It’s not just! It’s not science/proof!! David Rudolph did an amazing job, and I’m sure the majority of the population would agree with him! Michael Peterson was innocent, and the fact that he lost everything is absolutely devastating!! All because of opinions, not facts!
David, I am a fan and knew you from the trial of STATE v. CARRUTH. I watched it live on Court TV and you were great.
I am a rising-3L at a law school in Minnesota that plans on going into criminal defense and I believe you made a mistake not fighting the exhumation of Liz Ratliff. You said on the documentary that you wouldn’t win the fight and that you didn’t want to fight it. But not only did you not fight it, but you guys persuaded the daughters to sign consent to their mother’s body being exhumed. The lack of filing a motion, and the daughters singing permission seem to be two separate issues.
You thought that the daughter’s fighting it would get out to the media and make Michael look guilty — but the daughter’s actions were not Michael’s. You could have used them as a proxy to attempt to get the exhumation stopped and you could with only minor collateral media exposure to Michael. The daughter’s not wanting their long deceased mother’s body to be dug up and have another autopsy performed on it not only is plausible, but (I believe) would ring true with most people.
Maybe you ultimately would have lost the motion — but with the body being buried in Texas….the initial findings of the death being ruled natural causes I don’t know what possibly could have been gained by the body being dug up for you guys. It is almost like letting your client talk to the police…..anything helpful that came out wouldn’t really help you (because it’d only buttress the medical information that already existed) with only the possibility of damaging information and characterizations being found out. Perhaps you thought the police, Deborah Radisch, and the DA wouldn’t be as evil as they were in their efforts to make the whole thing into a publicity stunt…..but it was one you walked right into. Really, comparatively….would having filed that motion (or merely not cohering Margaret and Martha into signing the papers allowing it) compare to what actually happened? Literally, it couldn’t have been much worse…
Going back to your belief that you would have lost the motion. Are you that sure? What jurisdiction does a judge in North Carolina have in Texas? May it have gotten complicated? What could have been proffered as evidence that there was any relevant information in the coffin? The death had already been ruled a natural death, and trying to find the relevance to what happened in 2001 is puzzling. I believe there was very little evidence before that casket was opened A) suggesting a homicide and equally important B) that it was committed by Michael. So C) it ought to have been very hard to argue there was anything probative to the instant case.
I don’t mean to sound negative, because I believe you are an amazing lawyer and did really well overall in this case. But, perhaps not perfect? If you ever want to give a more detailed analysis on your thinking, I would love to hear it. I don’t know what you thought the best case scenario was here. At best I think you would have got something like, ‘inconclusive’ from the medical examiner – who you already knew had ruled the instant death a homicide. And even in the highly-unlikely event that Radisch completely ruled out homicide in the 1985 death, the DA still got to parade the suspicious circumstances of 2 deaths by falling down stairs, and they could have in the end said, OK he didn’t kill 2…….he only killed the 1 that way. But I suspect, most prosecutors would not have been that light, and allowed the ‘shade’ of just knowing about the other death hang around.
I think you were best with the only written documents about the death and condition of the body being the initial ones (death by natural causes), and ought to have tried to in at least some ways (but likely as many as you had at your disposal) to play interference on that. As I watched the girls talk about how they were convinced into signing the papers allowing the exhumation, I was kind of shocked. But I am a mere 3L and perhaps I do not have the right perspective on all of this.
If I were a juror and convinced that he was guilty, David Rudolf would have changed my mind. I did not expect to feel so many emotions throughout watching this documentary but I cried profusely. I’m heartbroken that Michael Peterson had to spend years behind bars instead of being able to grieve. I don’t even know if this is where I should post this but I was so moved, and impressed I had to comment somewhere.
The moment I became aware of the Ratliff death in Germany and the State’s intention to exhume the body for autopsy, my concern-o-meter was blaring, particularly considering the fact that the news media was aware and was covering the event. This raised my antenna for 2 reasons. One being the fact that this public suspicion on the part of the State was not without risk. I’m actually surprised it was never mentioned in the documentary by Rudolf’s team, even in side conversations, since I’m certain that the State DID discuss it. As I stated before, this decision was risky on its face, anything could have happened. They could’ve gone through all the expense of time, tax papers dollars just to determine that Ratliff did in fact die a natural death and that they wasted time, money and disturbed her family for no legitimate reason. Then it occurred to me,….nope, they’d made up their minds before they even left NC!! They knew EXACTLY what they’d find, because for them it was never in doubt. Think about it, DA’s are politicians, they can’t afford to make egregious mistakes like this, if there was even a ten percent chance that they were wrong and Ratliff died naturally the public would respond “shame on you!”,etc.
So, I believe that Radisch knew what her findings were going to be going into it, it was never in doubt. It’s ugly as hell to have to face realities like this, but c’mon the defense needed to see this one coming from a mile away! I saw it, from the moment in the documentary that there was linkage AND the State’s insistence on having the autopsy done 1800 miles away,…by THEIR M.E.??!
Instead of in Texas by an independent pathologist with no skin in the game? Didn’t pass the smell test guys,…and douchebag-Deaver?! Yikes!! I felt so bad for David Rudolf too. He toed the line, played by the rules, probably thinking his reputation for honesty and integrity, his familiarity with the Judge, would carry the day,….. and it didn’t. The system is beyond hope my friends,..period. My advice,…stay out of trouble, don’t talk to law enforcement without an attorney, and always assume that the system is rigged against you. Oh yeah, Dave, you fought the good fight all these years so kudos to you for that you’re a real Mensch!!✡️
My thoughts on the first three readers read some really good things. The thing that got me the most was when they dug up her body almost 2 decades after her death. This reader really made the story sound so much more spooky. Another thing is she made it sound like she was covering the case right in front.