The city of Durham in North Carolina had a serious problem with police misconduct at the beginning of the 21st century. The most famous example was the so-called “Duke Lacrosse” case, which gained worldwide attention. In this case, a young Black woman accused three Duke University students, lacrosse players, of having committed a brutal, racially-motivated gang rape upon her.
The woman’s story about what had happened on the night in question radically changed at least five times in the course of the investigation. Nevertheless, the District Attorney, Mike Nifong, pursued the rape charges against the three white students. Nifong gave dozens of interviews to the media, in which he painted a picture of the young men as racists and perpetrators of a hate crime. He reassured the city of Durham that they would be swiftly brought to justice.
Nifong already knew, however, that a rape kit had been used to test the accuser and it proved that none of the student's DNA was in her anal or pubic regions. The results of these tests were hidden from the students’ lawyers.
Eventually, the truth came out. Nifong was disbarred and found guilty of obstruction of justice. For his outrageous abuse of power, he spent a single day in prison.
Nifong had taken the helm from a man called Jim Hardin, who had resigned from the position of District Attorney in 2005. And in truth, Nifong had inherited a corrupt office. Hardin was the District Attorney who had pushed forward with murder charges in an even more famous case: the murder case against Michael Peterson.
Michael Peterson had been charged with the murder of his wife in 2001 and was found guilty at the end of a lengthy trial in 2003. The case garnered international attention after the release of the Staircase docuseries in 2004 and a related dramatized miniseries in 2022. In Michael’s case, just like the Duke Lacrosse case, there is troubling evidence of both police and prosecutorial misconduct. The two cases stand in parallel because in both cases exculpatory evidence was hidden from the defense.
Importantly, the prosecution had argued that Michael had killed his wife with a fireplace blow poke which had “mysteriously vanished” from the house in the wake of Kathleen’s death. On one of the final days of Michael’s trial, his son Clayton discovered the blow poke leaning against a wall in the basement of the house. The poker was, by now, covered in cobwebs, but it was not dented or bent and it had no blood on it. It was presented at the end of the trial with a grand flourish, to the annoyance of the District Attorney. The discovery of the blow poke made no difference to the outcome, however. Michael was found guilty of Kathleen’s murder and would spend eight years in prison.
But as would become apparent in the years following Michael’s trial, the police forensic team had already found the blow poke, photographed it, and set it back in the basement during a search of the property in 2002. Despite the fact that the State’s case hinged on the mysteriously missing blow poke, no one mentioned the fact that it had already been found, photographed, and disregarded as a possible murder weapon. The evidence was, it seems, deliberately withheld from the defense.
This was not the only example of hidden evidence. In 2003, a neighbor of the Petersons, Larry Pollard, began to promote the idea that an owl may have been responsible for the trident-shaped lacerations that were found on Kathleen’s head. The theory was outrageous and most people felt that Pollard was simply clutching at straws to save his much-beloved neighbor. After all, if a bird was responsible for Kathleen’s death, there should have been feathers at the scene. But no feathers were discovered. Therefore, there was no owl.
Pollard was no idiot. He was an attorney who had previously worked as legal counsel for some of the highest-ranked officials in North Carolina. He had also worked within the Special Prosecutors Office. He knew that if his theory was correct, some evidence of an owl must have been found. So, at the end of 2003, Pollard wrote a letter to District Attorney Jim Hardin asking whether any feathers had been discovered at the crime scene. He received a short letter in reply, which stated that no feathers were found in the course of the investigation.
Because of his previous employment, Pollard had all kinds of contacts within North Carolina’s Special Investigations Division. Through these channels, he received a copy of the forensic trace evidence report. He read through the report line by line.
On page three, he read that a feather had indeed been discovered in Kathleen’s hair. He requested access to the microscopy slide on which the hair was set. With the aid of a microscope, he was able to see that this was not just one feather, but two which had become glued to Kathleen’s hair with her own dry blood.
Durham’s authorities had lied to Larry about the feather. And Durham’s authorities had lied to the defense about the blow poke. They lied about many other facts which would have serious consequences in the case against Michael Peterson. Alongside the Duke Lacrosse case, the Michael Peterson case stands as another example of bad behavior by Durham's police and prosecutors. How was such a culture of corruption allowed to thrive for so many years?