EDITOR'S NOTE: Michael Peterson was a famous writer convicted of murdering his wife Kathleen in 2001 in their North Carolina mansion. Frank Heesh is a clerk in a used bookstore in Ithaca, New York. A six-hour documentary, sheer determination and an unshakable belief in Justice worked to create a human bond between these two strangers who eventually met in a North Carolina Prison.
Ithaca, NY – Now and then Frank Heesh still checks his mailbox before work, looking for a letter from a North Carolina prison. It's a reflex he developed a few years ago, and the simple act retraces one small action in a chain of events that re-confirmed his hard-won faith in one man's ability to help another, no matter how desperate the circumstances.
Heesh, 53, was leading a relatively routine life working at Autumn Leaves, a used and antiquarian bookstore on the Ithaca Commons, when, at the urging of some friends he watched “The Staircase,” a controversial documentary by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. “The Staircase” documents the case of author Michael Peterson, convicted of murdering his wife who was found dead at the bottom of the staircase in the couple’s luxury home in 2001.
After a highly publicized trial, Peterson, a former Marine Captain who served in Vietnam, decorated and honorably discharged with a permanent disability, was sentenced to life in prison. His fame as a New York Times best selling novelist vaporized. That he had ever composed successful Vietnam thrillers like “The Immortal Dragon,” “A Time of War,” and “A Bitter Peace” proved as helpful as an umbrella in a tornado. By terrible turns of circumstance and a biased system Peterson lost his freedom.
Heesh was deeply disturbed by “The Staircase.” As a passionate and keen fan of documentaries, his fundamental sense of right and wrong was twisted into unrecognizable shapes. Like a Greek tragedy “The Staircase” takes the viewer on a six-hour journey that always ends the same: Peterson is found guilty of murdering his wife, Kathleen, based on circumstantial evidence and the testimony of a perjuring investigator. But there is no catharsis. Heesh couldn’t wrap his mind around the ending. He watched the entire six-hour piece twice.
“It haunted me ... (I kept) willing a different outcome and then the same thing happened ... this man lost the rest of his life because of a system and a society that I’m a working member of.”
Released in 2004, “The Staircase” inspired outrage and sympathy from viewers as far flung as Australia, Germany and England. After the release, Peterson was deluged with mail at the Nashville Correctional Institute – his new permanent address. Most letters were totems of sympathy laced with angry diatribes and impassioned critiques of America’s flawed justice system.
The case itself spurred intense public controversy and a frenzy of coverage. The hype spanned a nine-year period of opinionated media-mobbing while Peterson served his time and worked to obtain a retrial.
Heesh penned his own message to Peterson expressing his personal sorrow for the prisoner and his family. Heesh figured that was about all he could really do. Then a letter showed up in Heesh’s mail box. Although overwhelmed with correspondence, Peterson composed a swift reply to Heesh. The catch? The envelope’s return address "Ithaca, New York."
“… My stepdaughter, Caitlin went to Cornell and I had been up to Ithaca several times … (Frank’s letter) brought back all kinds of really fine, good memories,” Peterson said.
The snail mail route made for fast friends.
After initial contact, Heesh spent his free time researching the legal aspects of the Peterson case. But he quickly shifted tactics and decided that altering the court of public opinion was key to pressuring the legal system to call for an another appeal. His first plan of action was to steer Peterson’s supporters away from an ineffectual loop of crying freedom and innocence. What Heesh asked for, in straight language, was concrete proof and hard facts from those who claimed Peterson was guilty. Because Heesh knew such facts did not exist. Twelve hours of “The Staircase” taught him that much.
Hollering about innocence “just provided a platform to get shouted down and if you get shouted down by the opposition that just defeats the purpose,” Heesh said. He did not play judge and jury but inspired Peterson advocates to “say that we don’t know whether he did this or not – what we do know is that the original trial is unfair.”
Heesh targeted comment sections of articles in the newsobserver.com and wral.com, the leading pubs following the case. His was a clear voice in the wilderness, one that demanded constructive dialogue about the trial.
The fresh approach was persuasive.
Peterson supporters shifted the pressure on the legal system. Peterson-bashers began to delete their comments from websites. Meanwhile, correspondence between Heesh and Peterson evolved. They hashed-out strategies on the phone. As with his correspondence Peterson ended each phone call saying he wanted to meet Heesh in person.
Heesh thought Peterson’s requests were merely polite gestures, a little on the optimistic side of a dream where they'd sit down together over a beer, Peterson a free man, Heesh there to relish the moment.
No. Peterson wanted to meet Heesh ASAP, right there in The Big House.
Heesh was hardly flush but he didn’t think twice about going. He applied for visitation rights, endured a background check and sorted out the details of paying for a flight, a cab and hotel in order to make the jail meeting happen. When they met, it was as old familiars.
“[Our connection] was immediate. After the very first meeting, which was a two-hour visit, he shook my hand and said, ‘I don’t think I ever bonded with anyone as quickly as we just did.’” Heesh said.
The connection ran deeper than the struggle for Peterson’s freedom. Both men are the products of conservative backgrounds; both broke away from their respective, predictable cultural routes to explore alternate paths of religion and the life of a free-thinkers. Heesh was raised Southern Baptist, a fire and brimstone Christ-centered faith that for all its colorful trappings as a truly American religion, hardly embraced or nurtured Heesh’s instinctual quest for the facts of life as they are in the sweet here and now. This led almost naturally to a non-theist view on life and a more scientific approach to digging at the truth of a matter. Even when that meant abandoning the solace of an afterlife and accepting that what we see is what we get.
“Michael Peterson is not going to go to Heaven or Hell. He’s not going to come back and do it right until he gets it right. He’s not burning off any bad Karma. He’s in jail for the rest of his life and if he dies in prison, that’s all he’s got.” Heesh said.
Peterson too had moved away from formal religion many years ago, he said. In the last three decades, he said, Buddhism had become more or less his source of “religious” practice. Buddhism, a non-theistic religion that places great emphasis on mindfulness and living in the present, is right next to the realm of free thinkers.
“A Buddhist doesn’t believe in the after-life and so I don’t believe in anything more than what we have here, now today,” Peterson said. “(So Frank and I) definitely bonded on the fact that there’s nothing more than what we have right now.”
Right now was very much of the essence.
After their prison visit in 2010, Heesh kept the contact fresh. They often spoke twice a week on the phone. In Dec. 2011, Peterson was granted a retrial. He is currently out on $300,000 bond. The judge ruled that Peterson may be retried, but on the condition that no evidence could be submitted that had any connection with the discredited blood-spatter analyst, Duane Deaver, who was the star witness against Peterson in the original trial. (Deaver perjured himself in prior cases on the stand, including one case in which the defendant was executed.)
“Without Deaver's testimony in Michael's original case, the jury has said that they would not have reached a guilty verdict,” Heesh said. “So, technically Michael isn’t free: He still has a curfew and he is electronically monitored. On the other hand, the prosecution (the state) cannot build a case against him because without Deaver, there is no case. And there never was,” Heesh stated. But Peterson also cannot leave the state of North Carolina.
Even so, the outcome has been gratifying for Heesh. It’s a feeling he gets but once in a great while. Heesh said every decade or so he comes upon someone’s story that moves him in a way that he cannot help but get involved. He said when he gets old he wants to look back at his life and know he did something meaningful.
“I pictured myself as a 95 year old man sitting at a window and I can’t do anything else. When I get to that point and my mind is reasonably intact, am I going to be pleased with looking back at my life?” Heesh said.
Heesh finds no particular merit in his actions. He knows he is just one among dozens of people who helped Peterson get a retrial. But along the way something rare happened outside the jurisdiction of human invention, something beyond crime, punishment, ignorance and illusion: Real contact between two human beings occurred. Such events are less common than we may think.
Peterson recently invited Heesh for another visit to North Carolina, this time “on the outside.” To Peterson, Heesh was no bit player in this drama. Frank Heesh never stopped reaching out and that helped to keep Peterson sane and sustained him during a period that challenged his existence, he said.
“It was oxygen for the soul … to have communication with the outside the world. Frank Heesh was part of that lifeline.” Peterson said.
– Carolyn Cutrone, Special to tinytowntimes.com
PHOTOS CREDITS: Advocate Frank Heesh at his station in Autumn Leaves book store in Ithaca, NY, with letters he received from Michael Peterson while the latter was in prison, Frankie14850. SHOE: Michael Peterson's laceless shoe and cuffs worn during the hearing that led to his re-trial, credit Sean Rocco. DVD JACKET: A cover shot of "The Staircase," provided. LETTERS: Close-up of Peterson's snail mail to Heesh, credit Carolyn Cutrone. RIGHT: Michael Peterson, credit Harry Lynch.