Opinion Editorial as appeared in The Herald Sun

At an upcoming show at Durham’s Carolina Theater, Michael Peterson’s defense attorney, David Rudolf, is presenting “Inside The Staircase: Lies, Fake Science and The Owl Theory.”

The Staircase documentary was made during the Peterson murder trial, in which the prosecution claimed that the wounds on Kathleen Peterson, the deep gashes on the back of her head and the small puncture wounds and scratches on her face and arms, were made from Michael beating his wife to death. The defense argued the wounds came from falls down the stairs where she was found.

The Owl Theory is an alternate explanation of the wounds, thought of and extensively investigated by Attorney Larry Pollard, Peterson’s next door neighbor. Pollard noted the trident shape of two wounds a few inches apart on the back of Kathleen’s head looked like bird tracks, with three toes pointing forward, and one toe pointing back. That two such trident shaped wounds would have been made by murderous blows was not likely. The puncture wounds also looked like those made by owls on other human victims. The two drops of Kathleen’s blood on the outside walkway made Pollard conclude that Kathleen was attacked by an owl outside her house that night, and she then ran inside, tried to walk upstairs, fainted, fell, and ultimately bled to death at the base of the stairs.

The owl theory credibly explains all the evidence in the case, which neither the murder theory nor the fall down the steps theory did. Neither theory credibly explained the small puncture marks around Kathleen’s eyes and on her arms, or why in her bloody hands were many of her hairs pulled out by the roots. Hairs pulled out by the roots is not consistent with being hit over the head or by one or more falls down the stairs. It is consistent with tightly gripping owl talons ripping out her hairs as it tried to fly away.

Near the end of the trial, Pollard brought his owl attack theory to both the prosecutor, Jim Hardin, and to David Rudolf, and both summarily dismissed it. After talking to Hardin, the erroneous rumor circulated that Kathleen was attacked by an owl inside her house, a rumor intended to distort and ridicule the theory. The DA’s office even had a picture of an owl on their wall with a caption, “Wanted for Murder,” another attempt at ridicule.

The jury found Michael Peterson guilty. Rudolph appealed and told Pollard that after all appeals were exhausted, he would look further into the owl attack theory.

With signed authority from Peterson, Pollard filed a Motion for Appropriate Relief (MAR) based on the newly discovered microscopic feathers attached by blood droplets to Kathleen’s hair, found on an SBI slide, which further supported the owl theory. The motion was denied.

Dr. Alan van Norman, a neurosurgeon and head wound expert, and also an owl expert, had written an article about the terrible wounds that can be inflicted by the razor sharp talons of owls, especially to the head and face. Kathleen’s autopsy report and photos were sent to him, and Dr. van Norman concluded that the wounds on Kathleen were definitely made by an owl. He emailed Dr. Deborah Radisch, the medical examiner who wrote the report, that he would fly at his own expense with a colleague, to show her why the wounds could not have been made by blunt force trauma, and had to have been made by an owl. Dr. Radisch refused to meet with him, replying that she had her own experts and did not wish to discuss it further.

Pollard requested an affidavit from Dr. van Norman, to file with another MAR, but Attorney Rudolph did not want the owl theory pursued until he pursued his case against Deaver for lying at trial.

After eight years in prison, Rudolf got Peterson’s conviction overturned, because of the unscientific tests and false testimony at trial from Duane Deaver, the SBI blood expert. Ultimately because of his lies in testifying both in the Peterson and in other murder cases, Deaver was fired from the SBI. It was noted that the SBI often devised its tests and reports specifically to support the prosecution, and not necessarily to reveal the truth.

Michael eventually took an Alford plea to spare his family the trauma and expense of another trial, and the feather fragments on the SBI slides have not been tested for owl DNA. But even without DNA evidence, the totality of all the evidence leads to the conclusion that the wounds on Kathleen were made by an attack by an owl, something that no one thought of at the time she was found at the base of the stairway.

This is indeed an interesting and compelling story of the injustice that goes on in the criminal justice system and in those government offices that create reports for the prosecutors to use at trial. David Rudolf’s upcoming presentation about all of what happened will be very interesting.

The truth about what happened to Kathleen that night might never have come to light without the diligent and tireless efforts of Larry Pollard, who endured a decade of ridicule about the owl theory. Those of us who believe in the owl theory are happy that David Rudolf is now talking about it, and doing so in a public forum.

Millie Hershner, Esq.
9 Acornridge Court
Durham, N.C. 27707
Home phone : 919-493-4321
Cell Phone : 919-740-1981
Email: millieh1234@yahoo.com

Millie Hershner has a Masters degree in cell biology as well as a law degree.

You can see the full article in The Herald Sun


The talons of a barn owl–similar to those of the larger and more aggressive great horned owl that ostensibly attacked Peterson–match the puncture wounds on Peterson’s elbow.

On the evening of the incident, Michael Peterson found his wife Kathleen covered in blood lying at the foot of the staircase. Durham County prosecutors brought first-degree murder charges against Michael. After a lengthy trial, the jury found him guilty of beating Kathleen to death.

Evidence for a motive was produced, including a link to a possible murder in Germany, alleged bi-sexuality and credit card debt implying Michael was living off of Kathleen’s income. But in this circumstantial web, the prosecution did not produce a murder weapon, but hypothesized it was a “blow poke” usually found by the fireplace. A relative of Kathleen’s testified she had given the same blow poke to several family members, but the one she gave Kathleen was missing from the Peterson home.

Although defense attorney David Rudolph was able to establish that the wounds to Kathleen Peterson did not include subdural hemorrhage, contusions, abnormalities or fractures to the skull, brain or spine that would ordinarily occur from an attack by a weapon like the blow poke, the Orange County medical examiner remained steadfast that the wounds could have come from an attack with a similar weapon. Rudolph demonstrated that of the 250 beatings in North Carolina resulting in death in the past decade, all showed injuries absent on Kathleen Peterson’s body.

Late in the trial, the blow poke was discovered in the Peterson home’s garage covered in cobwebs. But the jury convicted Michael Peterson, despite the lack of a murder weapon COV- the and evidence that her wounds did not indiors cate a beating. A French documentary team nst produced a television film – The Staircase – on the trial that has aired on the Sundance Channel. In the film it is clear Rudolph was d, confident he would clear Peterson due to lack r- of evidence. In one telling scene, Rudolph and pt Peterson’s brother (also an attorney) comment ‘s that the worst case would be a hung jury; the e best an acquittal.

The key question then, is, in the absence of a murder weapon, and evidence that the wounds did not indicate a beating, what caused the injuries to the back of Kathleen Peterson’s head that allowed the blood to seep from her body and cause her death?

The Owl Theory

The theory speculates that Kathleen Peterson had been drinking wine with Michael at the outdoor pool area of the house during the unseasonably mild evening. She left the pool area and retuned to the kitchen where she washed out her wine glass and left it to air dry. Before going to bed, she decided either to take out the trash, lock or retrieve something from her car, or turn out the floodlights lighting the house on the Kent Street side of the house. Michael remained out of earshot in the pool area on the Cedar Street side of the lot, approximately 100 yards away on the opposite side of the property.

Kathleen walked outside near two white artificial Christmas reindeer lit by floodlights. Here an owl (or owls) was lurking, hunting for prey at night. Suddenly, the owl, perhaps attracted by the reflection of her glasses or something she was wearing, swooped down on Kathleen, crashing into her head at great velocity and digging its talons into the back of her head.

The same talons also match the tri-pronged wounds in Peterson’s scalp.

Unsure what had happened, she struggled to fend off the owl, lifting her arms to her head. The bird swept in again, its talons extending into her skin, digging deeper and stopping only at the skull. The impact of the boney toes on the feet of the owl caused lacerations by splitting her scalp. At the tips of the lacerations on the back of her head and elbows, her wounds reveal where talons would have dug in and hit the skull bone, but not crack the skull.

The force of the impact probably knocked her to the ground where she received marks on her nose and face. As she got up from the ground and started running, the owl assaulted her again, raking her head – either to force her away, or to grab the glasses on her face or head, which were reflecting the light from the floodlights. This second attack caused an avulsion (the peeled back skin on the left rear side of her head) large enough for blood to pour from the wound. The owl, whose talons were entwined in her hair, yanked its feet loose from her head, pulling hair loose from her scalp. It was all very swift, perhaps two seconds, causing no more than seven or eight lacerations as the owl hit her again and again on her head and elbows as she lifted her arms to ward off her attacker.

She ran to the front door as the owl gave up its grip. She slammed the front door, leaving a bloody hand print, and drops of blood on the sidewalk and the landing at the front door. There is a blood “swipe” on the door casing near the lock.

Kathleen ran into the house and down the corridor towards the kitchen (another drop of blood was found inside the front door). She was confused, not sure what happened to her, and was holding her hands to her head where her hair was yanked out after the attack by the owľs razor-like talons. In pain and confused, she fainted. She lay there bleeding, with blood now profusely flowing from her wounds. After an interval, perhaps an hour, she attempted to stand up and slipped in her own blood and hit her head against the molding of the bottom stair. The autopsy report shows this yoke-shaped laceration on the back of her lower neck.

Kathleen Peterson’s wounds show a symmetrical parallel pattern of marks that look suspiciously like the marks left by a raptor when it strikes people with speed and flexible talons that can split the scalp and then extend into the flesh. Because they are of similar size, the wounds appear to be delivered all at one time.

When Michael Peterson came into the house he found Kathleen on the staircase lying in a pool of blood. He leaned over her to help her and got blood on his clothing. He then called 911.

Metro obtained Kathleen Peterson’s autopsy photographs in order to bring this alternative theory to the public because the owl theory deserves the light of day. The wounds and blood patterns fit the theory, while the blow poke does not stand up to scrutiny as the murder weapon.

We are publishing this information because of the bill circulating in the NC House that calls for a ban on the publication of autopsy photographs set to begin July 1, 2005.

Justice demands full public disclosure of all evidence to protect the innocent, and to ensure trust in the judicial system.

This article originally appeared in Metro Magazine in the July issue of 2005

Making The Owl Case

Officials should get serious about the idea Kathleen Peterson was killed by an owl, theorist says


Recently, there have been numerous articles and letters to the editors berating the purported “owl theory” in the Michael Peterson case by former Congressman Nick Galifianakis and myself. We would like to clarify some misconceptions and misrepresentations regarding it.

The owl theory does not purport Kathleen Peterson was attacked and killed inside the stairway, but rather was attacked and cut outside the house on or near the circular driveway on the Kent Street side of the house. We believe she ran inside, fainted or collapsed into the stairwell, went into shock, and ultimately bled to death.

There was blood found outside the house on the brick walkway and front door landing leading into the house. Though only a few drops, we contend this is where the blood trail starts, leads inside the door where more blood was seen on the door handle and a smear above the door lock. There is another spot on the corridor floor highlighted by the police videotape taken that night and presented at trial. Mrs. Peterson is at the end of the corridor, or hallway. We theorize the attack occurred outside the house because a blood trail always starts with one drop, not a massive pool.

Talons match wounds

We further theorize that Mrs. Peterson was plausibly struck by an owl outside and received seven to eight deep lacerations on the back and side of her head at one instant. The shape, depth and number of the lacerations depicted on the autopsy diagram and seen in the police photographs clearly resemble two claw marks, or footprints of a raptor, and a “raking” of the scalp. This matches Dr. Deborah Radisch’s description of the wounds to the jury as being “tri-pronged … rakelike.”

In addition, the wounds are through to the skull, but do not break the skull, which would be expected of a raptor attack. The impact of the owl’s cylindrical toes and the grasping mechanism of the owl hindlimbs would have caused the talons on the end of the toes to cut and tear the soft tissue in the back of Mrs. Peterson’s head. We believe this to be a rational explanation of the wounds she received.

It has been stated there were no feathers or other evidence found outside the house and therefore the owl theory is absurd. On the contrary, one would not expect to find large feathers. Owls attack prey every night, and if they lost feathers every time they attacked, they would not survive long in the wild. Also, this was not a fight with an owl, but rather a surprise attack from the rear. Besides, I do not think anyone was looking for feathers.

However, the toes of owls are cov. ered with soft, microscopic feathers, and perhaps evidence of these feathers might still be found within the wounds. Other DNA material might be there also, i.e., broken talon tips, or talon sheathing, or microscopic grooves on the skull or the lining surrounding the skull. The direction of the soft tissue tears in the lacerations would also yield conclusions as to the direction of the hit as well as the angle of the attack. All of these would be exonerating pieces of evidence, and can best be established forensically.

Take another look

That is why we have respectfully urged the District Attorney to look again at the evidence in the police lockers and medical records to determine if an exhumation of the body is warranted. We believe this to be a reasonable request and the proper procedure.

Some have questioned our motives in raising this theory. Because owls are known to be in this area, and have the potential to render vicious cuts. and because of the resemblance of the wounds to marks caused by owls, we felt the responsible thing to do was to bring this to the attention of the authorities. Also, recently there have been reports in the press of other attack by wild creatures, i.e. mountain lions, sharks, bears and tigers, which demonstrate the vicious propensity of wild animals. Although very rare, these attacks do happen. That is why we suggested using the modern techniques of forensic science such as DNA testing to determine if this was indeed an attack by an owl or other bird of prey.

Armed with our local knowledge of the neighborhood and the extensive research done formulating the theory, it was also brought to the attention of the authorities in this case because it is their responsibility to assure justice has been served in this case. It is also the duty of our judicial system to be fair to any defendant and pursue any potentially exonerating evidence.

We believe there is enough compelling and circumstantial evidence indicating the possibility of an owl attack that it warrants a reexamination of the wounds and existing evidence, and that it is only the right and proper thing to do.

The writer is a Durham attorney.

This article originally appeared in The Herald-Sun, January 18, 2004.