Theories surrounding the 2001 death of Kathleen Peterson range from the accidental (a fall down the stairs) to the horrifying (killed by home intruders) to the bizarre (an owl attack). But the one that took center stage Friday in Durham, NC, focused on her husband, novelist Mike Peterson, who filed what's called an Alford plea on a voluntary manslaughter charge, more than 15 years after his wife's body was found at the bottom of the stairs in their home, the News & Observer reports. The case, which became the subject of a lengthy documentary, features intriguing details, including family members who've switched sides and even a family friend in Germany who, like Kathleen, was found dead at the bottom of the stairs a few years before Kathleen (and whose daughters Mike Peterson ended up raising).
Peterson, 73, was originally convicted in 2003 of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole, but he was released in 2011 after the judge who'd presided over the original case ruled that a main prosecution witness had lied, WRAL and the AP report. A new trial was ordered. The Alford plea entered by Peterson Friday allows him to still claim innocence while conceding the prosecution has enough evidence to get a guilty verdict. He walked out free afterward, though his wife's sister declared in court, "You will be a convicted felon forever." Peterson had said earlier he didn't want to take the plea, but he didn't think he'd ever get a fair second trial by prosecutors. "I am not going to put my life and my freedom in their hands." (Prison inmates say a fellow inmate was thrown down the stairs and killed by the "Beat Up Squad.")