The loss of a parent is something that one never really gets over, but the loss of a parent in a public, excruciating way is even more untenable. According to Indy Week, Caitlin Atwater’s mother, Kathleen Peterson, died on Dec. 9, 2001, and was found at the foot of the stairs of her home. A week after Peterson’s death, Caitlin’s stepfather and Kathleen’s husband, Michael Peterson, was indicted and charged with her murder. After being convicted in 2003, Michael was sentenced to life in prison without parole, and Atwater and the rest of the family had to move forward.
According to CNN, Michael has maintained his innocence in his wife’s death, claiming that she fell. During the trial, the prosecution claimed that Michael killed Kathleen in order to cash in an insurance policy and wipe out a chain of credit card debt. Per the News & Observer, they also presented evidence that Michael was in contact with a male sex worker and posited that he and Kathleen may have argued about it before her death. (In The Staircase, Michael claimed that his wife was aware of his bisexuality and that he sought sex outside of the marriage, and that their relationship was a happy one.) Michael’s defense attorneys claimed that the prosecution’s assertions were wrong, and that the crime scene could have been contaminated prior to police arriving, per CNN.
In 2003, according to ABC11, Peterson was sentenced to life in prison, but in 2011, Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson ordered the a new trial, as blood analyst Duane Deaver may have given misleading testimony during the first trial. In 2017, according to the News Observer, Michael submitted an Alford plea, which is a plea that allows the defendant to maintain innocence while acknowledging the strength of the prosecution's case. "Accepting this Alford plea has been the hardest thing I've ever done," Michael said at a press conference, according to ABC11.
In 2004, it was ruled that a $1.5 million life insurance policy in Kathleen's name that was originally rewarded to Peterson would go to Atwater and her biological father, WWAL reports. In 2007, Atwater and Peterson settled for $25 million in the civil wrongful death lawsuit Atwater brought against her former stepfather.
Today, Atwater is married and has two children, according to Indy Week, and she’s come to grips with both trials and her mother’s death. "The only thing that I have to say about the trial and all the subsequent fallout is that, if there was any closure to possibly come from all of this, it came after sitting through the entire trial and listening day after day to all the evidence — on both sides,” she said. “And after the closing arguments, when all was said and done, I felt confident that I knew what happened. I knew what happened to my mom. While there’s no true closure that can ever come for an event like this, for a loss this deep, I was ready to walk away and start moving forward with my life.”
That said, there are times when Atwater still misses her mother, she explained. “You know, every day, you wait for the moment when it’s going to hit you. My mom’s not going to be there for this, and this, but thinking about [those big moments] a lot leading up to them, it makes you turn to, ‘OK. What would she do if she were here? What would she have provided?’” Atwater said to Indy Week. “And on one level, figuring that out or comforting yourself or finding someone to fill that space is good. But when it comes to the little things, it’s like, I don’t know how she would’ve reacted to this. And you start second-guessing yourself because you don’t remember.”
As Atwater moves forward, she is trying to maintain a private life — she even asked Indy Week not to include her married name in her interview, for the sake of her privacy. While there are many lingering questions in the case of Kathleen Peterson’s unexpected death, one thing is certain — it left her surviving family to go on without her.