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Did a Barred Owl Commit Murder?

The 15-year-old legal proceedings against author Michael Peterson for the alleged murder of his wife, Kathleen, constitute one of the more notorious and extensively documented criminal cases of our time. It has provided fodder for two Dateline segments, a Lifetime movie, an expansive documentary film series, and dozens of true-crime television episodes and podcasts. It is lurid, tinged with drugs and alcohol, replete with an ongoing extramarital affair, and soaked in blood. It also spawned a criminal defense theory that sounds like a punch line: The owl did it.

The Original Trial

Peterson went to trial in 2003 for the fatal beating of his wife, who had discovered he’d been having an affair. As the story goes, he called the paramedics at 2:40 a.m., claiming he found her lifeless body on the stairs in the family’s mansion. The alleged murder weapon - a fireplace tool - was ultimately ruled out for lack of forensic evidence. Regardless, Peterson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole, but in December of 2011, a judge ordered a new trial after finding that a key witness had misrepresented his forensic expertise, and made “materially misleading” and “deliberately false” testimony about evidence. Peterson has been free since the day of that ruling.

If it weren’t for this misstep by the prosecution, the case might have gone in a wildly different direction—blame the owl. But how exactly could an owl be responsible for the death of Kathleen Peterson? The Owl Theory essentially posits that a Barred Owl attacked Peterson, got entangled in her hair, and inflicted serious injuries, including the removal of part of her scalp, which triggered a series of events that led to her death after falling down a flight of stairs.

The Owl Theory

The theory first came to light in late 2009, after attorney Larry Pollard, a friend and neighbor of Peterson’s, took a fresh look at the evidence. Her autopsy revealed seven lacerations, including very deep ones in the back of her scalp, and pine needles stuck to one of her hands, which both held clumps of her own hair. As Pollard discovered, the strands in the victim’s left hand contained three small feathers. Also, as Pollard and several ornithological experts noted, the pattern and shape of the cuts on Kathleen Peterson’s head suggest a weapon quite unlike a fireplace tool. If the culprit was an intruder, the finger points to the Barred Owl, a common species in and around Durham.

Kate Davis, executive director of Raptors of the Rockies, a Montana-based nonprofit was a specialist brought in to expand upon this theory. After delving into the evidence, Davis was convinced that an owl had attacked Kathleen Peterson, setting into motion the events that would lead to her death at the bottom of the stairs. She based her decision on the shape and placement of the victim’s wounds (a match to how the owl's talons would strike), the timing of the attack (in December, when owls are mating and highly territorial), the presence of the tiny feather (owl feet are covered with them), and the force of the impact.

Mrs. Peterson weighed 120 pounds and the suspect bird in the Owl Theory, an adult Barred Owl, weighs between one and two-and-a-half pounds and can fly at speeds of up to 40 miles an hour. An owl strike can definitely cause blunt force trauma. What's more, the raptors are known to dive-bomb humans when they feel threatened, almost always targeting the head. Davis also points out that the victim would have been taken by surprise because the shape of an owl’s feathers—serrated on one side to cut through the air, and fringed along the other edge—make it silent in flight.

The Timeline

Pollard’s timeline shows that Kathleen Peterson had been drinking wine with her husband by the backyard pool at night, and then headed through the house and into the front yard for reasons unknown. (Toxicology reports also found anti-anxiety and muscle-relaxant medication in her blood.) That’s where the raptor attacked. Peterson was out of earshot while his wife fought off the bird. The victim then walked into the house; blood was found on the front steps and smeared on the inside of the door. After all of this, while buzzed on wine and pills, she climbed the stairs, presumably heading to the master bedroom. But when she reached the last step, she fell backwards and tumbled to the bottom of the staircase. A crime scene photo shows her with her neck bent severely to the left, her head resting on the bottom stair, and her body splayed on the floor in a massive pool of blood.

Editor's Note

This story was originally published in the fall of 2016 during Michael Peterson's retrial. A request for dismissal was rejected, and the case continued into 2017, when he eventually entered an Alford guilty plea. The barred owl theory never made it to court.

Story excerpted from an Audubon article written by Joe Bargmann

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