Spoiler Alert! Spoilers for “The Staircase” ahead.
David Rudolf and Michael Peterson in the courtroom

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.

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