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Peterson on trial 

Groping for meaning

It is brilliant sun-splashed Friday--one more beautiful day in a string--and it's all over except the shouting. Out on the plaza, there is one last flurry of camera wars--CourtTV's Jean Casarez is talking to Channel 14, the frogs are shooting cameras shooting Candace. A last fling before the verdict.

"One in a million," said Orlando Hudson of the never-happens quality of a juror, Mrs. Dorothea Waters, having known an expert witness, Dr. James McElhany, three states away and decades ago. It also typifies the multi-faceted, circles within circles through the looking glass increasingly crazy not-fun house that we have been tumbling around in all summer--drawn now to a fractured, unpredictable conclusion.

After months in Courtroom 1, it is over and I have nowhere to go--like some really freaky graduation of sorts. I have a check to cash, all my rides have split and it is just me. I linger for a bit and slowly, haltingly head down Main Street, west. Great day for a walk.

I've seen the pictures, heard the endless stream of witnesses--experts and family--handled the supposed weapon. Most of all there's the smell--of people, the elevators, of soap and aftershave, sweat and clothing; people dealing with the consequences of a run-in with the law, whether they did it or not. I'm left groping for meaning at the end of this.

I walk past the downtown loop, toward Ninth Street and the nearest Wachovia a mile away. Just a man with a suit and tie walking down a city street on an ordinary October day.

I don't know Michael Peterson except as a sort of cardboard cutout. I don't know if anyone can. He remains as impenetrable and inscrutable as the Chat Noir, but not particularly threatening or menacing--just a dissipated aging man, to some a Durham Hamlet, presiding over a grand opera and the wreckage of an unknown number of lives--mute. I don't think anyone can know the man any more than we can never know what happened in that stairway that night.

I've been accused of harboring malicious thoughts about Michael Peterson. Nothing could be further from the truth. While I can't quite imagine hoisting a few cold ones and catching the game with him, I don't hate the man; that's not my place. Indeed, had I known him before all this happened, I might, just might, have different thoughts about him. I know people who do know him and who express disbelief that he could have done such a thing.

My status gives me an advantage to be able to study this thing with a degree of detachment and--dare I say--"objectivity," that abused and absurd quality claimed as a tenet of modern journalism. I didn't go to a J-school; I'm just a fairly bright, inquisitive guy listed on the Indy's masthead under "opinion"--and I think he did it.

I tried to study this thing like a scientist studying a petri dish, neither pro nor con even with the, er, problems I've had with authority figures before (having been convicted before by cops who--hold the presses--lied on the stand.)

Farther down Main, I pass Howerton and Bryant funeral home, where Kathleen was laid out that day in December.

What brought me around was not the prosecution or their strategy. The state got so slapped down in so many ways, the weapon(s), the motive, Shiabani, a drunken juror with a down-to-the-ground rap sheet threatening some grease monkey with a shotgun, that it might even be worth revisiting some cases tried in Durham County.

My conclusion was drawn from a mountain of shockingly damning evidence and coincidences--primarily the autopsies, photos--and statements made by Peterson at both scenes.

And paradoxically, I am one of David Rudolf's most ardent defenders. People have called him to my face some dreadful names that, had they been directed at me, might have been followed by a knuckle sandwich. It is the oldest and easiest conditioned response to say "I hate lawyers" or some lame-ass jokes or a dumb comment like, "Rudolf hasn't proven Peterson's innocent."

It is not the job of the defense to prove a client's innocence. It, quite simply, is their job to make the state prove its case--a big, important difference. There is no verdict of "innocent," and anyone who thinks that needs to take a civics class.

I tell them if they were in a pickle like a murder rap and they were fresh out of friends, Rudolf might just be the best one they ever had. He and his team used every possible angle and detail to hammer the prosecution's circumstantial case (which was not unlike a plate of spaghetti thrown at a wall.)

Finally, at the Wachovia, I wait in line. The teller is joshing with this lady who is wearing a grey wig, her real hair showing under the fake bob--how odd.

David Rudolf is no Atticus Finch. Sure he's brash. Sure he's a camera hog. Certainly his courtroom demeanor often borders on tasteless (especially when the jury is out), but if that were a grounds for canceling someone, there goes most of America on down to the guy who fixes your car. He is what he is.

But the bad part of all of this is that this is the best trial you will see. "Bad" in that this is the sort of solid defensive sandbox where only the rich get to play. Johnnie Crackhead does not go into a trial with Mikey's advantage--and U.S. conviction rates and two million-plus in the can show that.

"Liberty and justice for all"--a phrase hammered into our heads--is a hollow falsehood. Justice is available for a price. North Carolina is offing people like a threshing machine and it is absolutely barbaric, not just when everything is correct, but when things go wrong.

It would be bad enough for a jury member to have to live with condemning someone to death for errors on the part of the defense or prosecution--and it happens all the time. But the worst punishment would be for the person selected to actually kill (and I'm not going to pretty it up by using that cursed distancing term "executing;" let's call it for what it is) a person condemned on the basis of botched forensics or on the word of a proven liar. How do you think that would feel when you opened the paper? Killed because of a mistake--or worse, a lie?

I've had a shift in my thoughts about the death penalty over the decades, probably due to a shift in the pack mentality endemic to humans and a laziness on my part. It has changed over the years to a rejection of the sanction on spiritual grounds.

Later, I'm in a big field waist-deep in a profusion of wildflowers. There is livestock, a horse and some sheep working the meadow. Tenaciously alive, robust grasshoppers are having a time at the end of their lives. They, in their machine-like determination are oblivious to their fate, days away--death is not going to ruin the end of their lives. They wing and buzz through the sky like machines.

Michael Peterson is not up for the death penalty, but the experience of watching what happens to someone who has deep pockets and the capable shelter of Rudolf, Maher and Associates has hardened my opinion of the basic unfairness underlying the United States' version of justice and punishment. The only force that gets to make that decision is the one that steers the universe--any force that tampers with that unknown balance is acting outside of human range to decide.

The spell has been broken. I'm not going to see the verdict. I have my own family to attend to now, a trip a long way from home to honor another woman who lived and died, as will the grasshoppers in that field, as all who live will. EndBlock

Contact Eichenberger at petrblt@hotmail.com

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