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Peterson on Trial 

The plow horse vs. the hornet

You aficionados of vintage Warner Bros. cartoons will remember the oeuvre of Ralph Wolf, (a cousin, I'm told, of Wile E. Coyote, "Super Genius") and Sam Sheepdog, wherein the two spend a half-hour in mortal combat involving detonations, falls, Acme fake sheep and at the end, the two, Ralph having generally taken the worst of things, step to a time clock and punch out ("See ya Sam, Ralph.") As they both head home.

Three weeks of day-to-day of the Peterson thing (and court proceedings in general) conjure to mind the conflict between Ralph and Sam. On stage there is a give and take, sometimes fairly vicious and when court is over, professional cordiality (to a greater or lesser extent).

But the characterizations would have to be altered to maintain an accurate portrayal.

Head prosecutor Jim Hardin reminds me of a sturdy, reliable plow horse, every morning slipping on the heavy leather collar, placing the blinders on and trudging down the rows shimmering in the dewy August morning toward the trees wavering in the rising, smothering heat, focused only on completion of the task at hand, the distant end of the day and the comfort of the stall.

If Hardin is an old hoss, lead defense attorney David Rudolf is like a swarm of ground hornets one stumbles into, everywhere at once, attacking from every angle and direction. The question is: Will the old boy be able to make it to the short row without staggering and falling under the relentless onslaught?

That's the scenario on the ground. In a perfect world, it would probably be a more even match up. Force versus agility. But there are a lot of hazards out in the field, gopher holes, boggy low areas--limitations courtesy of the Durham Police Department. A high point of the bungling would have to be when it came time for a Hardin to introduce a piece of evidence, a small bit if metal, when the bags and container were opened--empty. Jim and assistant prosecutor, Freda Black, bless their hearts, were brave about the magic trick and took it well, but the dismay was palpable. That has to be an all-time courtroom nightmare.

Hardin is convinced of the rightness of his quest--professionally and, it seems, morally. He has much to gain if he wins, but more to lose if things don't go well. The trial is consuming a great deal of Durham County resources (like everywhere else in the nation, revenue streams are down and services being cut). Losing big, while not an utter disaster, would not be a good thing in the public's view (it is, remember, an elected position). And if he shoulders the blame for Durham police bungling, it would be a disaster. There have been so many investigative disasters that one possessed of a creative imagination could almost guess some sort of complicity. Whoops. Did I say that?

I've been around ineptly managed jurisdictions, but I swannee, I've never seen anything like Durham. It is hard to believe. I've experienced more discerning police skills in Dalton, Ga.

It would take a thick file to catalog the missteps so far: Paschall, the ex-public safety officer, now a fire captain, having to advise officers to seal the house because of his belief of the possibility of it being a crime scene; a very thin motive (too rich, apparently), no weapon, even though the specific-ness of the actual weapon was the first thing out of the box. Blow Poke. Sounds like a porno flick--why couldn't prosecution have just said "blunt object," that would seem to cover a variety of weapons rather nicely--including death by woodwork, a subject chillingly covered in Peterson's A Bitter Peace.

Then there's the messy processing of the crime scene: a battalion of cops, family and friends tromping through the house and the blood deposits, contaminating the crime scene (like it wasn't contaminated before the authorities arrived) the gaggle of attorneys strutting the yard around like starving vultures with the smell of blood in their noses.

All of it, the botching of the evidence, the hapless performance of the cops on the stand, the incomplete application of Luminol, have set up some heavy demands on the best of prosecutors. (On the subject of Luminol, investigators from both the Durham Police and the SBI have underscored the difficulty of photographing the 10-second to 2-minute flare from Luminol when it kicks. From what I've heard, no one in these agencies has attempted to use a cooled low-lux CCD (video) and HRP substrates. These cameras can operate in nearly complete darkness. With one of these type cameras and the substrate, the kick from Luminol would be enough not only to see and record the bloodstains, but would glow for hours. A little tip, fellas:
. Check it out.

Hardin is perfectly suited to be a prosecutor for Durham County, but the boy is flat out of his league when it comes to Rudolf Wolf. This trial is equivalent to the Hillside JV squad taking on the Packers. Every cycle of witness testimony seems to start well, and then the defense goes on the attack, picking every aspect of the testimony to bits--sometimes in a decidedly nasty fashion.

Witness the ritual jack-slapping poor crime-scene technicians Dan George and nice guy Eric Campen received at the hands of Rudolf: a relentless fusillade of the most damaging sorts of questions, eliciting from George more I-don't-knows since Ronald Reagan's Oscar-worthy performance at Iran-Contra. Sheesh, if I were that poor sap, I would take a vacation for about six months in Trinidad-Tobago to give the city time to forget about it.

That being said, there is such a thing as a too-aggressive cross examination--something that can work against a lawyer, especially in a Joe Six-pack place like Durham. And that is one thing that never comes across on TV--the jury's expressions and nuances when Rudolf bores into these poor working stiffs. It sort of chaps my butt and I'm not from Durham. I guess Rudolf got the word, because Monday after the Friday's mugging, Rudolf was all sweetness and light--well, kinda.

Personally, if I were a prosecutor, I would be about as eager to try this case as hitting myself in the head with a ball-peen hammer. Sometimes I look around and wonder why we are all sitting there in Courtroom 1.

Looking at the evidence it is clear to me that Kathleen Peterson was killed; it was no accident. But even with all I've learned, even if I were on the jury, I couldn't convict. An emotional appeal is not, finally, enough. Someone snuffed her and anyone could have done it. And I'm betting that's what it will come down to. See you in the morning, Sam. EndBlock

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