His Wife Was Found Dead At The Foot Of A Staircase. The World Has Debated His Guilt Ever Since.
HBO Max’s The Staircase takes a predictable trip down the rabbit hole of the Michael Peterson trial. (Contains spoilers.)
In December 2001, Michael Peterson called 911 to report that his wife, Kathleen, had had an accident. “She fell down the stairs,” he told the operator, apparently in hysterics. “She's still breathing! Please come!”
By the time police arrived at their 19-room Durham, North Carolina, home, Kathleen, a 48-year-old Nortel Networks vice president, was dead. The copious amount of blood around the staircase made her death suspicious, with her husband the prime suspect. Days later, Peterson, a novelist and former mayoral candidate, was arrested for murder.
At the trial the following year, prosecutors argued Peterson had led a double life. They brought out a gay escort he had corresponded with, speculating that Kathleen’s discovery of his bisexuality might have led to a confrontation that ended in murder. More shockingly, they claimed his wife’s death fit a pattern. He had also been the last person to see close family friend Elizabeth Ratliff, the mother of his adopted daughters, alive before she, too, died at the foot of a staircase in 1985.
The trial split the family apart. Kathleen’s sisters and a daughter from her first marriage, Caitlin, sat on the prosecution side. Peterson’s sons from his own first marriage and his adopted daughters supported him.
The court proceedings culminated in a guilty verdict and spawned books, a Lifetime movie, and countless hours of cable news coverage. French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, who was looking for a follow-up subject after his 2001 Academy Award–winning documentary about a wrongly accused Black teenager in Florida, Murder on a Sunday Morning, was given an all-access pass to cover Peterson’s defense.
The result was 2004’s The Staircase, which used Peterson’s trial as the focus of a skeptical look at the US criminal justice system. The docuseries focused on how Peterson’s family and the defense withstood prosecution. Its construction of the case emphasized prejudicial aspects, like the judge allowing evidence of Ratliff’s death, which a state medical examiner also deemed a homicide, and the prosecution exposing Peterson’s sex life so as to use jurors’ potentially anti-gay attitudes against him.
Bombshell revelations that a state examiner had fabricated evidence against Peterson came out in 2011, and Peterson was eventually released from prison. But that didn’t settle the endless Reddit threads and internet theories proposing that Peterson was a sociopath who had murdered two women or, even more outlandishly, that an owl might have been responsible for Kathleen’s death.
Now, the eight-part HBO miniseries, also called The Staircase, written by Antonio Campos, a filmmaker who attended the original trial, and Maggie Cohn, a writer on Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story, deconstructs the story by revisiting the making of the documentary. The scripted series includes context about the Peterson family that was left out of the 2004 docuseries, reframes some of the story with what we’ve learned since, and makes the filmmakers characters in the drama.
This might sound niche and meta, but it’s part of a true crime trend centered on examining the ethics of the true crime industrial complex itself.
The Staircase lacks a specific and confident perspective, despite excellent performances by Colin Firth as Peterson and Toni Collette in an underwritten role as Kathleen. There are no new insights to glean here, nothing as sharp as Janet Malcolm’s meditation on journalistic betrayal in The Journalist and the Murderer or the more recent revisionary perspective of Law and Order’s Menendez brothers revisitation, which looked back at the infamous case with two decades’ of hindsight to examine how views around sexual abuse changed. But despite the series’ predictability, the rabbit-hole appeal of the original story should keep plenty of viewers watching.
The original Staircase docuseries is largely told from Peterson’s perspective, and there is an undeniable appeal to witnessing him in action. He describes his last night with Kathleen in the very home where the events took place, recounting how they had watched the movie America’s Sweethearts, then drank wine while sitting by the pool outside.
Peterson claimed he last saw Kathleen right before she went into the house to get some last-minute work done and that he eventually found her in a pool of blood at the foot of the home’s small, dark back staircase.
The documentary drops you into the midst of an evolving story even as it carefully constructs the tale, foregrounding Peterson, his lawyers, and his family. It draws a sympathetic portrait of him, fleshing out his relationship with his older brother, Bill, his sons Clayton and Todd, his daughters Margaret and Martha, and his lawyer, David Rudolf. In contrast, Kathleen’s sisters and daughter are only seen in the background: as they help the prosecution build its case against Peterson, or talk to reporters outside the courthouse.
The HBO miniseries dives further into this gap in the family dynamics. We watch Kathleen’s sisters grow dissatisfied with Peterson’s evasive answers about the night of his wife’s death, and Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin being persuaded by the physical evidence that her mother’s death wasn’t accidental.
There’s more detail about Kathleen herself too, including small glimpses of her work life and the testy relationship between Kathleen and her stepson Clayton, who had a history of violence (as a 19-year-old, he planted a pipe bomb at Duke University, allegedly as part of a plan to make fake IDs).
The miniseries also attempts to deepen our understanding of the Petersons’ marriage, suggesting that they were supposedly deep in credit card debt. This dramatic context gives the series palpable tension; in one scene, Kathleen complains that she is tired of financially bailing out her stepsons, especially as it seemed she might be laid off.
Firth creates a plausible enough Peterson, who guilt-trips his daughters into appearing on camera and coldly pits his sons against each other as they seek his approval. The miniseries smartly uses the making of the documentary itself as a device to expose emotional truths about the family — for example, suggesting that Peterson’s brother coached the children, telling them about their father’s bisexuality so that they could maintain a blasé attitude about it on camera, to imply that it was a known fact in the family, and perhaps to Kathleen as well.
There are intriguing hints of family dysfunction and denial. “You and Todd and dad, why can’t you guys just be normal?” Martha (Odessa Young) asks Clayton. “You rack up debt, you embarrass us.” Peterson’s first wife, Patricia (played by Trini Alvarado), tries to clamp down on family conflict with a “let’s all get along” attitude.
Another scene explores the experiences of the college-aged sisters, who were expected to be in the documentary and participate in their father’s defense at the cost of their emotional health; Martha, uncomfortable with the public attention, has a panic attack at court after a particularly emotional day.
Trying to make entertaining TV out of courtroom politics is hard, but Parker Posey does a convincing job as dramatically eyelinered prosecutor Freda Black, whose Southern inflection as she declared the gay porn on Peterson’s computer “pure T filth!” did not play well with the documentary’s audience. But some behind-the-scenes machinations are cast in a sympathetic light, as when North Carolina DA Jim Hardin decides not to put witnesses willing to talk about Peterson’s sexual orientation on the stand because he didn’t want to out people during the trial.
None of this quite amounts to a compellingly new perspective, though the series effectively builds slightly more interesting versions of characters we thought we knew.
Kathleen Peterson can no longer speak for herself; she had already been mostly erased out of this story, and with this new miniseries, that’s still the case. Her daughter Caitlin Atwater has been largely silent about the story, but won a $25 million wrongful death judgment against her onetime stepfather; there is little of her perspective here.
Netflix began streaming de Lestrade’s The Staircase in 2018, after Peterson’s conviction was vacated and a retrial was ordered. He took an Alford plea, not contesting the charges but not technically pleading guilty, either.
This resurfacing of the story during the internet sleuthing era inspired endless podcasts and Reddit threads. Perhaps the most infamous testament to the documentary’s — and defense theories’ — hold on the public imagination was the spread of the bizarre but compelling owl theory, which attempted to make sense of the fact that Kathleen had sustained lacerations to her head yet no fractures to her skull. (Almost as a kind of counter to that, the miniseries reminds us that state medical examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch said Kathleen’s broken thyroid cartilage suggested strangulation.)
We may never know what happened that December night in 2001. The miniseries presents an interesting potential scenario that mixes insights from the prosecution and defense witnesses to arrive at a kind of centrist possible explanation. But given how much fantasy and speculation has surrounded the story, and the series’ prestige meta approach, one would hope for a more ambitious perspective — perhaps some commentary on the murderous husband trope or on our fascination with true crime itself.
True crime productions now have to straddle two audiences: true crime Redditors who know everything about famous cases and the rest of the audience, who come to the story fresh. This series feels hampered by the need to thread that needle, presenting the broad strokes and also sampling the cult details.
But the appeal of these real-life crime stories is not so much about literal gore but emotional gore: seeing real people going through extraordinary situations. Nothing in the series, for instance, can live up to the immediacy and shock of seeing now-influencer Todd Peterson go on a video rant after the death of his mother, Patricia, accusing his father of being a narcissist who may actually have killed his stepmother.
Despite the HBO series’ attempt to elevate the material with subdued lighting and prestige actors, all this new Staircase can do is analyze, enthralled by the characters of the original documentary. In trying to tease out the implications of the characters’ emotions, which the documentary leaves up to the viewer, some of the mystery is lost and made banal. “Even when I know he’s telling the truth,” the fictional de Lestrade says about Peterson, “it can sound like a lie.” True enough. And that’s why we watch. ●