While the biggest question posed in Netflix’s new documentary series “The Staircase” is “Did Michael Peterson kill Kathleen Peterson?” don’t expect to walk away from the show with a conclusive answer. Ultimately, the answer is never given within the 13 episodes, and maybe that’s how it should be.
Given the recent influx of crime documentaries and television series’ hitting the airwaves – Netflix’s “How to Make a Murderer” from 2015 explored the possibly wrongly convicted Steven Avery and HBO’s 2015 “The Jinx” followed Robert Durst up until his shocking confession of murder – it’s no surprise that Netflix swooped in fast to acquire French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s 2004 original series “The Staircase.”
Lestrade shot over 600 hours of footage for the documentary chronicling author and war veteran Michael Peterson’s criminal trial after his wife was found dead at the bottom of the staircase at their home on December 9, 2001. Along with airing the original ten episodes of the show, Netflix enlisted Lestrade to produce three more episodes revisiting the Peterson family in recent years amidst newfound developments of the case.
At first glance of the grisly crime scene at the Peterson’s home, it seems almost impossible for Kathleen’s death to be an accident. The copious amounts of blood couldn’t possibly be the result of a fall down the stairs, right? Alas, only one person could ever know the truth surrounding the death and that’s Kathleen herself.
Michael Peterson called 911 around 2:40 A.M. upon his discovery of Kathleen’s body at the foot of the stairs. Earlier in the night Michael and Kathleen had been sitting by the pool of their home chatting and reading, drinking alcohol like most couples do in their downtime. Kathleen headed inside before him and left Michael outside to read alone.
Kathleen’s autopsy reported a 0.7 percent blood alcohol content (just under the legal limit) as well as the presence of valium in her system. It also stated that she had a fractured neck cartilage and hemorrhaging to the internal neck alongside several lacerations to her head. She had died from blood loss less than two hours after her injuries.
It is to be noted that Kathleen’s skull was not fractured and she suffered no brain damage, both of which are common injuries sustained from being beat to death. While the prosecution in the murder case believed Michael to be the culprit as he was the only one in the home at the time of Kathleen’s death, the defense argued that she simply fell down the stairs. Dr. Henry Lee, forensic blood spatter expert found the blood evidence to fall in line with the theory of an accidental fall down the staircase.
Oddly enough, one popular fan theory surrounding Kathleen’s death was not included in “The Staircase,” let alone Michael’s three-month murder trial. What is deemed “The Owl Theory” insists that an owl is partly to blame for Kathleen’s death. While this sounds extremely absurd and unlikely at face value, it has a lot more credibility than you’d assume.
The theory has its origins in Michael’s lawyer friend and neighbor T. Lawrence Pollard who in 2009 filed a motion for appropriate relief, claiming an owl attack led Kathleen to her death. Director Lestrade told Vulture he believed the theory, yet strayed away from theories in his documentary, focusing rather on the legal proceedings of the trial in an attempt to achieve neutrality. (Note: Peterson had a fifteen-year ling with the show’s editor, Sophie Brunet.) He initially filmed both the prosecutors and the defendants for the series, but the prosecutors opted out after four months of being filmed.
The lacerations found on the back of Kathleen’s head were a series of intersecting V and lowercase-T shaped cuts that look a lot like scratches from owl claws. Dr. Patrick Redig, veterinary medicine professor at the University of Minnesota, agrees with the likelihood of an owl attack.
“In my professional opinion, the hypothesized attack to the face and back of the head resulting in the various punctures and lacerations visible in the autopsy photographs is entirely within the behavioral repertoire of large owls,” Redig wrote in a report. In addition, Kathleen was found holding strands of her own hair in her hands as well as small feathers and wood splinters. Clutching one’s hair suggests some sort of defense or coping technique against an attack but the coinciding of bird feathers in Kathleen’s hands adds more to the story and casts reasonable doubt concerning Michael’s involvement. Aside from the owl theory, the defense suggests several other elements to prove Michael’s innocence.
Many skeptics proposed that Michael killed Kathleen for her life insurance money, but this can be quickly disproven by the impossibility of Michael living without Kathleen and her income. Michael was an author and Kathleen was a high-ranking businesswoman at Nortel, which was worth an estimated $7.3 billion before its liquidation in 2009. Michael was making pennies to Kathleen’s dollars and he would be unable to maintain his lavish lifestyle without the money she was bringing home from her own job. Furthermore, Kathleen’s million-dollar life insurance policy was in her ex-husband’s name, meaning Michael wouldn’t receive any financial gain after her passing. Digital Spy reports that the policy carried out to Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin and her father in 2004. Michael owed the bank $100,000 and his sons Todd and Clayton were an additional $30,000 in debt and killing the primary benefactor of the household’s income would serve Michael no purpose other than cement him further in debt.
Similarly, Michael was running for City Council in 2001 when Kathleen died. After his unsuccessful bid for mayor in 1999, what good would murdering his wife do for his political campaign? Murder would only tarnish his campaign and thrust his personal life into the spotlight amidst his fight for office, painting a huge public target on his back.
Also to be noted is the fact that the prosecution insisted Michael used a fireplace blow poke to administer the blows to Kathleen’s head. While they were unable to conjure this supposed murder weapon, it did surface near the end of the trial after it was found dusty and untouched in Michael’s basement without any traces of blood. If this was the weapon that was used to kill Kathleen, why was it coated in dust and spiderwebs? If Michael had used the blow poke as a weapon, why was it so lazily left in his basement in plain view and not hidden or destroyed? If Michael was guilty, why wouldn’t he make sure to destroy the tools he used to kill his loving wife?
The complexity of Kathleen’s murder is what piques viewers’ interest in “The Staircase.” Not only is Kathleen’s death peculiar, but the evidence supporting both side takes onlookers on a rollercoaster of doubt and confusion. There is still quite a bit of alarming proof on the prosecution’s side that Michael Peterson was guilty of his wife’s murder.
Kathleen’s autopsy stated that she had “died from a beating” based on the “bruising and abrasions on the front of her face [and] backs of her arms.” Dr. Kenneth Snell was the medical examiner who took the first look at Kathleen’s body and went on to testify in court concerning Michael’s guilt and also reported possible strangulation wounds that were not mentioned in “The Staircase.”
The biggest monolith pointing to the murderer being Michael Peterson is the fact that his former friend and possible lover, Elizabeth Ratliff, was also found dead at the bottom of a staircase in Germany twenty years prior. If lightning never strikes twice in the same spot, how is it possible for two women closely linked to Michael to die under the same circumstances? Now, Ratliff died of a brain hemorrhage after falling down the stairs, but her work friend Cheryl Appel-Schumacher found the circumstances unsuspicious, as she complained of having severe headaches in the days preceding her death. Michael went on to adopt her daughters, Martha and Margaret, and raised them alongside his sons. It seems suspicious for Ratliff to die so similarly and for Michael to take her children under his wing can be perceived as either an extreme alibi or just plain kindness.
Another storyline that the prosecution pushed was the emphasis of Michael’s bisexuality and they insisted his same-sex desires led to Kathleen’s murder. They proposed that Michael was dissatisfied with Kathleen and yearned for more and thus eliminated her to live out his own sexual fantasies. Michael insisted his extramarital affairs were accepted by Kathleen and that she was aware of his sexuality.
Ultimately, Michael Peterson was found guilty of Kathleen’s murder in 2003 and sentenced to life in prison. However a turning point arrived in 2011 when prominent figure in the case, special agent Duane Deaver of the State Bureau of Investigation, was found to have partially hid significant information regarding the results of various blood tests in many court cases. His negligence led to the exoneration of Greg Taylor, a man convicted of a murder after Deaver’s opinion swayed the jury. Deaver was fired from the bureau in 2011 after he admitted to fabricating the results of his blood spatter experiments throughout his career, including the Peterson’s case. Peterson’s defense attorney pushed for a new trial based on Deaver’s impact on the jury and thus, he was released on house arrest in 2011 after being granted a retrial.
At the age of 73, Michael didn’t want to endure the weight and stress of another trial so he took an Alford plea in 2017. Under an Alford plea, the defendant asserts their innocence but admits that the evidence presented against them is significant enough for a guilty conviction. Michael was freed in 2017 but legally admitted partial guilt under the plea.
While “The Staircase” doesn’t uncover the absolute truth regarding the circumstances of Kathleen Peterson’s death (how could it?), it does successfully cover both sides of the infamous North Carolina legal battle in a fairly neutral fashion. While the film focuses more on Michael’s own journey throughout the trial, it does also include the prosecution’s side and their evidence of Michael’s involvement. Netflix’s hit crime predecessor, “How to Make a Murderer,” failed to include very crucial facts of Steven Avery’s involvement in photographer Teresa Halbach’s 2005 murder and instead insisted Avery’s innocence.
Halbach’s camera and phone were found at Avery’s home and he called her twice on October 31 – the day she disappeared – using *67 to conceal his phone number. Avery had a violent criminal past that included anger management issues, two rape allegations and admittance to abusing his children and ex-wife Lori Mathiesen. Robert Fabian, a friend of the family, stated in court that he had witnessed Avery’s odd behavior on the day of Halbach’s disappearance. Fabian also noted that Avery had recently showered that day and had started a fire in the barrel where Halbach’s phone was eventually found and was overall acting very strangely.
The difference in coverage of “Making a Murderer” and “The Staircase” lays in part to the fact that the latter was French produced and filmed over a decade ago, long before Netflix originals existed. For Netflix to captivate its audiences successfully, it needed to drop a few facts to shock its viewers and keep them enticed with the swift storyline. Thus, the case made such a splash in mainstream media because the general public couldn’t believe how a man could be wrongly convicted not once but twice.
What Jean-Xavier de Lestrade achieves in “The Staircase” is a type of crime documentary that doesn’t lean on a gory collection of pictures or a salaciously drama-infused story to keep the viewer intrigued. Admittedly, part of the series can be found boring because of its length and heavy-handed scientific lingo, but that’s what makes it genuine and classifies it as non-fiction. If Lestrade had left out some of those court moments in order to progress the plot quicker, it would leave certain details out and thus slant the purpose of the documentary by biasing it.
To remain neutral amidst a murder trial is difficult, but Lestrade does his very best to paint the full picture of Michael Peterson, as dull or bizarre as his court case may be. Whether or not Michael is guilty of this crime is up to the viewer to conclude, because Lestrade’s series gives the viewer the opportunity to make an educated decision for themselves.
All 13 episodes of “The Staircase” are streaming now on Netflix.