On the cold December night in 2001, writer Michael Peterson found his wife, Nortel executive
Kathleen Peterson covered with blood at the bottom of a narrow staircase in the Durham, North
Carolina mansion. Durham police quickly arrested Michael Peterson for Kathleen’s murder.
In the following months, a French documentary team showed up to document the events of
Peterson’s trial. They arrived without realizing they were about to be witness to one of the most
thrilling trials ever documented and develop the most famous True Crime documentary called
The Staircase. It was first released in 2004 with 8 episodes. The show was a cult sleeper
success in the world of true crime prior to gaining more attention during the post serial real
crime boom. Two more episodes of the case were produced in 2011 with three more to follow in
2017 when the complete series was made available on Netflix.
The Staircase’s most important issue — who or what caused the death of Kathleen Peterson? It
is technically solved. Michael Peterson was first convicted of her murder in 2003 and sentenced
to life imprisonment. After 15 years, following an enormous forensics scandal caused his
conviction was thrown out and he entered the Alford agreement to admit technical guilt, while
still claiming his innocence to get his freedom. The summation does not be able to capture the
timeless appeal of a case that produced one gothic, head-splitting twist after the other.
This past Friday HBO Max released a new drama series that is named the Staircase. The show
stars Colin Firth and Toni Collette as Michael and Kathleen The Staircase is a brand-new series.
The staircase is a crossroads between biopics and fanfiction. Staircase fanfiction. The new
show is even finally! gives room to the now-famous theory of an unorthodox suspect.
To fully appreciate the new Staircase’s improvements, it is important to know what was the
reason the original was appealing.
The perfect family and a crime scene that isn’t perfect
“Is there anyone in the world who’s not always on the spot?” Michael Peterson jokes about his
loud, big family during the TV show The Staircase. (Unless it’s noted in the show’s description
as an HBO Max docuseries, we’ll use The Staircase as the title for the initial show.) The
Petersons in all their accounts were a lively and affectionate family: Michael, Kathleen, and her
daughter from an earlier marriage Caitlin Michael’s two children, Todd and Clayton, and their
adopted daughters Margaret as well as Martha Ratliff. Michael along with his wife Patty knew
the Ratliffs as they lived right near them in Germany several years ago — however, Margaret, as
well as Martha’s mother, passed away between 1984 and 1985, which led Michael as well Patty
to adopt the two daughters. After 1986, they relocated back to America and separated after
three years. Three years after, Michael moved in with Kathleen.
A veteran of the Vietnam War, Michael wrote his military-themed novels that were well-received
enough for him to buy a massive five-bedroom home within Durham for his idyllic family. The
year 1997 saw Michael with Kathleen married in 2001. It was evident that Michael Peterson,
then 58 years old, was living the perfect life.
According to Michael Peterson, on the night of December 9, 2001, at a balmy 50-something
degrees Peterson and Kathleen were sipping cocktails at the pool following dinner. Kathleen
returned to the house first, and when some time had passed, Peterson followed — and
discovered her covered with blood. Peterson called a panicked phone call and hung up
repeatedly. After arriving at the residence and observing the quantity of blood that was all over
Michael Peterson’s body and walls as well as Michael Peterson, police immediately took the
house over as an investigation scene.
There are many misconceptions regarding the evidence discovered on the site. One of the most
prevalent is the notion that no fall from the stairs could have triggered this much blood. Indeed
similar falls can cause (warning graphic images) blood everywhere. There was no blood at the
top of the ceiling nor on the wall to the left of the stairwell; the defense relied on this argument of
the absence of ” cast-off spatter” to prove that there was no weapon used during the murder of
her. (Other evidence of blood that was left out of the document was discussed in the court
without any real certainty.)
Another theory, later challenged by the defense one of the theories is that Kathleen passed
away from blunt-force trauma. According to the defense’s inquiry into the homicides that
involved blunt-force injury, Kathleen likely did not suffer from blunt force trauma that could cause skull fractures, bruising, or both. Instead, she suffered from bizarre injuries to the back and top
of her scalp. These caused her to lose blood but did not cause a concussion or skull fracture,
which leaves the exact cause of her death to be a mystery. Kathleen was also suffering from an
injury to her thyroid, which could be a sign of strangulation, however in reality it was likely that
strangulation was not the primary cause of the injuries and wasn’t a key element of the murder
Despite this ambiguous and contradictory evidence, the situation was not looking good for
Peterson right from the beginning. In his previous position as a liberal, contrarian columnist in
The Durham Herald-Sun, Peterson criticized police officers in the local area and the District
attorney James Hardin — an incident that later led Peterson and his lawyer to that they were
aiming for revenge. In his defense, Peterson hired esteemed trial lawyer David Rudolf.
The year 2002 was when French documentary filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade after he had
won the Oscar for his documentary about true crime The Murder of a Sunday morning was
searching for his next film. Peterson’s trial was appealing to him as it was just starting to move
forward and the documentary crew could have the chance to try something only a handful of
documentaries had done up to that point — record the entire procedure of bringing a case before
a judge. In the end, after their first session of filming ended on the 23rd of March 2003 Peterson
received a life sentence for murder in prison.
The filmmakers had no idea that the path for Peterson and their film was only just beginning.
Peterson was sentenced to 8 years behind bars and exhausted his appeals till new proof,
helped by the documentary transformed everything.
The Peterson case was a case that saw one twist after the other
In numerous different ways In many ways, The Staircase can be described as a collection of
Rorschach tests when you consider Kathleen Peterson’s murder Do you see an accident on the
stairs or perhaps a murderous crime, or something other than that? If you look at Michael
Peterson, do you think of him as an innocent person or a charming psychopath? If you hear his
911 calls do you sense the sound of panic or calculated thinking? When you examine the
evidence provided by the state and then rebuffed by the defense Do you find evidence of the
case or are you in a reasonable doubt?
The Staircase has weaknesses. It’s lengthy and often takes too long to let the main character
speak about himself. The show has been criticized for bias toward the person who is being
accused. (More on this in a minute.)
It’s also addicting. Michael Peterson, playing himself is weird enough for him to become the
main character of the show. Staircase required. He’s a bit of a chameleon, performatively
charming, and a polished lie-teller. He is a fan of Shakespeare as well as listens to Mahler and
tells the sexual workers he employs that he is devoted to the woman he is married to, as well as
writes in the first person novel snippets of his joy of murder. But regardless of whether
Peterson’s dark side or not on camera, he appears relaxed and caring, missing his wife and leading an unwavering family that is steadfastly defending his innocence. (Caitlin Kathleen’s
daughter has broken with her step-siblings by the accusation of Michael of murder.)
Peterson’s lawyer also makes an impressive figure. Honest and sincere, David Rudolf
systematically chips away at evidence He swats every prosecutorial blow (and there are
numerous) until he’s crafted an argument that is solid and based on reasonable doubt. His
defense turns into an exuberance celebration.
However, Peterson and Rudolf together could not be enough to create the Staircase the
legendary documentary about true crime it was where the case had not been filmed in real-time
in front of the camera, with every turn a whiplash-inducing twist.
The first twist changes the story into a pure Southern Gothic melodrama: The prosecution, after
gaining access to Peterson’s computer (possibly without the proper warrant) discovered that
Michael had bisexuality and was involved in sexual escapades in the background. It is unclear if
Kathleen was aware of Michael’s secret sex lifestyle however, he claimed that she knew. The
prosecution’s condemnation of Michael Peterson for his bisexuality was one of the main issues
of the trial attorneys arguing that it was motivated and put his entire character to be questioned.
If it really does as well, like the rest of the trial, like everything else in Staircase it is not clear.
The second major twist was able to give the documentary its title. In 1995 Peterson’s neighbor
next door Elizabeth Ratliff — the mother of Margaret and Martha Peterson’s adopted children —
was discovered dead in the basement of her staircase. The last person who was known to have
seen her alive was Michael Peterson. (One of the most memorable moments of the show, The
Staircase Comes during episode 3, in which Rudolf when he learns of this new development,
responds: “Nope.”) While the autopsy that was originally conducted concluded Ratliff had died
from aneurysms in the brain, however, the possibility that Peterson being the only known person
to witness two distinct women alive prior to when they all died at the bottom of the stairs was
just too fascinating to ignore. The prosecution exhumed the body of Ratliff and attempted to
establish that there was a link with the death of the other however this only confirmed the fact
that the evidence against Peterson was.
The third and most significant twist is caught on camera. The prosecution claimed that the
weapon used in the murder was a Peterson Fireplace poker belonging to the Peterson family
that had been mysteriously “gone missing” until the family discovered it strewn about in the
basement, undetectable by blood. A few years later, Rudolf learned police allegedly were aware
that the fire poker was not the weapon used in the murder right from the beginning.
The last major twist resulted in Peterson’s freedom. Duane Deaver the prosecution’s main
witness was a blood-spatter expert employed by the state crime laboratory of North Carolina
through the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI). As per the newspaper, The Staircase jury
members in Peterson’s trial initially remained divided about his innocence or guilt however, they
relied on the blood spatter evidence of Deaver in determining their guilty verdict.
The issue: Deaver did not have any training in the field of forensics. At Peterson’s trial, Deaver
overstated his qualifications and then lied in the courtroom regarding his experience in the field.
Deaver stated that he has seen many crime scenes, however, he only visited 17. Because of
this and other instances of laboratory conduct the FBI investigated the SBI and discovered that
the lab was unable to release information favoring the defense in many cases. The state’s
convictions were reviewed. A large number of them, including Peterson’s, were dismissed. The
analysis of blood spatter used to be a dominant part of forensics and is now considered as
completely a flimsy science.
Judge Orlando Hudson granted Peterson a new trial in the year 2011. Peterson was granted bail
under surveillance by the court while waiting for an appointment with a new judge. As
documented in the last installments of the Staircase documentary, Peterson pled guilty in 2017
to the Alford plea. This permits the defendant to declare their innocence while acknowledging
that the state has sufficient evidence to find them guilty. The question of whether the state really
did it has been questioned. In the film’s final episode judge Hudson stated that if he had to
conduct the trial over again the judge would likely have disallowed evidence involving
Peterson’s sexuality and was not allowed to hear testimony about Elizabeth Ratliff’s murder.
Peterson’s trial was not without its own concerns with the corruption of the prosecutorial team in
addition to the issues we find in the trial in the documentary The Staircase. District attorney that
initiated the trial of Peterson, Michael Nifong was exiled in 2007 due to extensive fraud and
misdeeds in relation to the Duke lacrosse scandal that occurred in 2006. Tracey Cline, the
district attorney who opposed Peterson in 2011 was removed from her position in 2012 when
the judge found that she had made comments “with reckless disregard and malice of the truth”
regarding the judge Orlando Hudson, who oversaw the Peterson trial.
In the course of the trial, one expert witness for the prosecution, Saami Shaibani, exaggerated
the relationship with Temple University and had his testimony (which involved dubious
experiments where he witnessed individuals falling down steps) removed from the trial
transcript. In addition to that, the final two episodes of stairs claim that the assistant medical
examiner Deborah Radisch, who autopsied Kathleen and declared her death a homicide initially
believed the cause of death was due to blood loss, not blunt force trauma. Rudolf claims
Radisch was pressured to alter her initial conclusion by the medical examiner in charge.
The numerous instances of corruption reveal how much all odds against Peterson. However, the
documentary proved to be a significant supporter of his. In the hearing in 2011 to determine if
Peterson was going to get a fresh trial Rudolf utilized footage of the documentary The Staircase
that showed the significance of Deaver’s testimony to the prosecution. Both the judge and
Peterson believe that without the Staircase they would not have been able to prove their point.
The work of De Lestrade exposes its biases. From the beginning, it portrays Peterson and his
defense as heroes fighting an unfair witch investigation. This is in part an outcome of access, as
Peterson was able to access the Durham DA and shut the film crew from their investigation,
while the defense was completely transparent throughout the entire court proceedings.
However, the film’s love for Michael appears on the camera as well as in the editing. The
Staircase ultimately abandons any pretenses of objectiveness.
This could be due to an additional twist that you don’t discover on the show: The Staircase:
French editor Sophie Brunet, who edited the entire thirteen episodes on the Staircase was to
love Peterson in the course of editing. She and Peterson were in contact while he was in prison,
and they had a long-running relationship -and all the while she worked on editing the show! The
new series, which is fictionalized, makes this a huge storyline which is no surprise: The
Staircase’s viewpoint is one of its primary advantages, however, its clear bias is its Achilles the
Achilles. The documentary does not cover most of the evidence against Michael and his family,
which could include the possibility of a motive that could be Kathleen’s huge death insurance
settlement. Rudolf has denied this notion and noted that the prosecution has backed away from
any financial motive. However, for many viewers, hearing information like this outside of the
documentary can undermine its credibility.
If you’re not feeling a bit lost from all these records-scratch incidents, here’s one final thing to
The Owl theory
After Peterson’s trial their lawyer, Larry Pollard, had a completely alternative explanation for the
case. The strange scalp injuries seemed to be in line with neither the defense nor the
prosecution’s theory of the incident that occurred to Kathleen. What do you think if these injuries
were not caused by an unknown weapon, but rather by the claws of an Owl?
Pollard approached the police and they ridiculed the notion, as did Rudolf did not respond until
Rudolf admitted to Vulture that he’d like Pollard had “realized the possibility at least six months
before” and it would be an integral element of his defense.
The owl mythology has turned into a true crime-related joke and is backed by a legion of people,
including ornithologists. Not just do the wounds on her head appear to be like talons, however —
wait for it the body of Kathleen was discovered with feathers. Twigs and pine needles were also
found on her body and blood was also found outside of the home. Additionally barred owls,
which are known to become aggressive were reported to reside in the neighborhood.
On its face, the idea of an owl is absurd. It explains the most incongruous part of the Peterson
case which is the way Kathleen might have suffered gouge-like injuries to her scalp, but not a
skull contusion or fracture. The prosecution has never clarified the reason for this. The owl
theory is also the reason for Kathleen’s alleged thyroid injury, a bizarre puncture wound that the
defense also failed to discuss. Rudolf is now keeping a section of his site which explains the
reasons why the Owl theory is logical.
In the time since the publication of The Staircase, Peterson has published the book he wrote
himself, Behind the Staircase. The children of Peterson live their lives in private, but Todd, his
youngest daughter Todd recently recorded bizarre footage where he claimed his father of killing Kathleen and omitting to notify 911 of Todd’s mother, Patty who passed away from an attack of
the heart in 2021. There are no updates on the claims that have come out.
However, The Staircase is becoming more significant with each passing year. Despite its biases
subjective it clearly shows the characteristics of an era of a white man who was privileged in the
early millennium. Michael Peterson appears to be the modern-day Don Draper, skilled at lying,
self-aggrandizement, and claiming to be important without really being crucial.
It also exposes the day-to-day operations of a dysfunctional justice system, as well as the
numerous ways that an overly aggressive prosecution could fail by relying on faulty forensics
dependency on moral panic and frenzied speculation. We can see the reason why thorough
defenses to trials cost so much for low-income defendants and also see the value a quality
defense can purchase. The staircase is a final reminder that despite all the money that is
available corruption in the justice system can render an effective defense virtually impossible.
Then, the Rorschach test is finally over. The Staircase is a prime part of the epistemic crises in
which we are. “Sometimes I’m sure they’re watching another case,” one of the defense experts
who died Ron Guerette said at one time in the documentary when court commentators delve
into the case on Nancy Grace. Each aspect of the investigation is debatable. However, The
Staircase’s influence on the current crime scene shows no signs of slowing down.
In terms of the person or thing that caused the death of Kathleen Peterson, 20 years ago, we’re
still not sure. With the advent of the new show, investigators continue to uncover the truth daily
and the Petersons continue to captivate our attention it’s evident: We’re not going to put off