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Media wins access to hearing and controversial autopsy report

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    NMU         NORTH CAROLINA         Secret Courts    

Media wins access to hearing and controversial autopsy report

  • The trial judge changed his ruling after considering the media’s constitutional challenges.

April 30, 2003 — A hearing to determine whether controversial evidence against author Michael Peterson, who is charged with the 2001 murder of his second wife, Kathleen, will be open to the public today, thanks to The Herald-Sun in Durham, N.C.

The open hearing will determine whether evidence about Peterson’s sexual preferences and an autopsy report of another woman will be admitted as evidence in his trial, which is set to begin May 5.

Peterson is familiar with the spotlight. In addition to being the author of several novels, he has been a columnist for the Herald-Sun and ran for mayor of Durham in 1999.

Superior Court Judge Orlando F. Hudson reversed his original order that closed the hearing after considering the newspaper’s constitutional arguments.

“The public and press need to hear the argument about what comes in and what doesn’t and why,” said John Bussian, counsel for the Herald-Sun. “Closing courtrooms even for an evidentiary hearing of this kind should only be resorted to in the rarest of circumstances.”

Hudson also invalidated his order sealing the autopsy report of Elizabeth Ratliff, which may be used as evidence against Peterson. Hudson reversed his ruling because he did not provide the media with notice or an opportunity to object to his sealing order.

Ratliff, who died in 1985 on a military base in Germany, allegedly was with Peterson the night before her death. The hearing will determine whether a recent autopsy conducted on Ratliff’s exhumed body that reports her death to be a homicide will be admitted as evidence in Peterson’s trial for the murder of his wife in 2001.

The (Raleigh) News & Observer also filed a motion and was granted access to the autopsy report and hearing.

(State v. Peterson; Media counsel: John A. Bussian III, The Bussian Law Firm PLLC, Raleigh, N.C.; Amanda Martin & Hugh Stevens, Everett, Gaskins, Hancock & Stevens, LLP, Raleigh, N.C.) ST

© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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