Several theories emerged during Michael Peterson’s 2003 murder trial, none more bizarre than the claim that an owl was responsible. Here’s what we know.
When Kathleen Peterson, 48, was found unconscious in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs of her North Carolina home in 2001, her tragic death quickly made headlines as controversy mounted over what had happened.
Kathleen’s husband Michael Peterson made the shocking discovery of her body, claiming she had fallen, but an examination of the death on the stairs revealed injuries inconsistent with a fall – including curious leather lacerations Kathleen’s scalp – and it was quickly ruled a homicide.
Michael was convicted of murder at trial in 2003 and sentenced to life in prison, before benefiting from a new trial eight years later in which his charge was reduced to manslaughter. He was sentenced to a sentence already served and eventually released.
Although he has always maintained his innocence, speculation has swirled about who the killer might be or if it was just an unfortunate accident.
But there’s also a third theory – dubbed “the owl theory” – which suggests Kathleen may have been attacked by a barred owl.
The riveting drama, starring Australian Toni Collette and Oscar winner Colin Firth, is full of twists and turns exploring the relationship dynamics of the Peterson family and the events leading up to Kathleen’s death.
Collette, who plays Kathleen, says she felt a special responsibility portraying the wife and mother, explaining, “That woman is dead. We don’t know how she died, but there’s a great responsibility that comes with bringing a truthful quality not just to this experience, but to her life.
So what really happened to Kathleen and could an owl be the culprit? It’s not as far-fetched as one might think.
Was Kathleen Peterson killed by an owl?
There are three main theories surrounding Kathleen Peterson’s cause of death.
The most obvious and widespread is that Michael bludgeoned her with a fireplace tool or “punch”, causing lacerations to her scalp and knocking her down the stairs.
Oddly enough, the punch was noted as missing at home and never recovered.
The second theory is that Kathleen was under the influence of pills and alcohol, and simply tripped on the stairs.
The third and most sensational theory is death by owl.
This was suggested by the Petersons’ former neighbor, a lawyer named Larry Pollard, who brought the idea to Michael’s defense team that Kathleen may have gone out, been attacked by an owl and is came back inside in a panic, slipping down the stairs.
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The staircase owl theory is ridiculous, isn’t it?
Not necessarily. Although unlikely, Michael’s defense attorney, David S Rudolf, said there was enough circumstantial evidence not to dismiss the owl death theory entirely, including the following facts:
-Barred owls lived in the woods near the Peterson house
– Barred owls are known to attack people
-There were drops of blood on the outside sidewalk
-There was a bloodstain on the outside of the front door frame
-A feather was found on the body of Kathleen Peterson
-There were strands of Kathleen’s hair, which had been plucked out rather than torn or cut, found in dried blood on her hands
Wait, could an owl really kill a human?
Alfred Hitchcock forever changed our perception of our feathered friends (or are they demons?) with his iconic 1963 thriller The birdsin which flocks of seagulls, sparrows and crows attack a community.
The film was inspired by a real mass bird attack in California in 1961, in which hordes of birds bombarded houses and cars.
“It should be noted that barred owls are known to owl experts for attacking people out of the blue, without provocation, without warning,” says ornithology expert Dr. Alan van Norman in the Netflix docuseries on the case. .
Although barred owls are known to attack and have sharp talons and beaks, human death from attack is extremely unlikely.
So what was Kathleen Peterson’s cause of death?
It was never determined.
Although Michael Peterson was convicted of his murder in 2003, he was released in 2017 after being granted a new trial due to questionable testimony from a key witness.
Michael has always maintained that the police were looking for him after the death of Kathleen Peterson, amid allegations of extramarital affairs he had with men.
Pleading guilty to the reduced charge of manslaughter, he received time served and was released.
Leigh Livingstone is a journalist, presenter and editor who has co-hosted and produced Popcorn Podcast since 2019. You can read more about her career here.
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