The owl did it, and other reasons true crime fans love The Staircase (2024)

On a chilly December night in 2001, novelist Michael Peterson found his wife, Nortel executive Kathleen Peterson, lying covered in blood at the foot of a narrow stairwell in their Durham, North Carolina mansion. Durham police promptly charged Michael Peterson with Kathleen’s murder.

A few months later, a French documentary team arrived to film the course of Peterson’s trial, little knowing they were about to witness one of the wildest cases on record and create an iconic true crime documentary series: The Staircase. Initially released in 2004 with eight episodes, the series became an acclaimed sleeper hit within the true crime community before gaining wider popularity amid the post-Serial true crime boom. Two follow-up episodes on the case were filmed in 2011, with three more following in 2017, when the full series was finally released on Netflix.

The Staircase’s central question — who or what killed Kathleen Peterson? — has technically been answered. Michael Peterson was first convicted of her murder in 2003 and sentenced to life in prison. Fifteen years later, after a massive forensics scandal led to his original conviction getting overturned, he would enter an Alford plea, a plea of technical guilt while maintaining his innocence, in exchange for his freedom. But that summation fails to capture the enduring appeal of a case that yielded one gothic, head-turning twist after another.

On Friday, HBO Max released a new narrative series, also called The Staircase. Starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette as Michael and Kathleen, the new Staircase lives somewhere between biopic and ur-Staircase fanfiction. The new series even — finally! — makes room for a now-infamous theory involving an unusual alternate suspect.

To appreciate the new Staircase’s additions, however, you have to understand what made the original so compelling.

The perfect family — and an imperfect crime scene

“Is there anyone here who isn’t always performing?” Michael Peterson jokes about his large, loud family at one point in The Staircase. (Unless noted as the HBO Max series, we’ll be using this title to refer to the original series.) The Petersons, by every account, were lively and loving: Michael, Kathleen, and her daughter by a previous marriage, Caitlin, Michael’s two sons, Todd and Clayton, and their adopted daughters, Margaret and Martha Ratliff. Michael and his first wife Patty had known the Ratliffs when they lived next door to them in Germany years earlier — but Margaret and Martha’s parents had each died in 1984 and 1985, respectively, leading Michael and Patty to adopt them. In 1986, the couple moved back to the states and divorced; three years later, Michael moved in with Kathleen.

A decorated Vietnam War veteran, Michael wrote military fiction; his novels did well enough to allow him to purchase a giant five-bedroom house in Durham for his idyllic blended family. In 1997, Michael and Kathleen married; by 2001, it seemed Michael Peterson, then 58 years old, had acquired the perfect life.

According to Michael Peterson, on the night of December 9, 2001, a balmy 50-something degrees, he and Kathleen were enjoying drinks by their pool after dinner. Kathleen went back inside first, and after some time passed, Peterson followed — and found her lying covered in blood. Peterson made a frantic 911 call in which he hung up several times. Upon arriving at the house and seeing the amount of blood all over the body, the walls, and Michael Peterson, police immediately treated the area like a crime scene.

Misconceptions frequently circulate about the evidence found at the scene. The biggest: the assumption that no fall down a staircase could have caused that much blood. In fact, similar falls result in (warning: graphic imagery) blood everywhere. No blood was found on the ceiling or the wall opposite the stairwell; the defense used this arguable lack of “cast-off spatter” to argue no weapon was used in her death. (Other blood evidence left out of the documentary was debated in court with no real conclusivity.)

Another assumption, later argued by the prosecution, is that Kathleen died from blunt-force trauma. According to the defense’s investigation into homicides involving blunt-force trauma, Kathleen likely did not die of blunt-force trauma, which would have caused bruising, skull fractures, or both. Instead, she had strange injuries to the top and back of her scalp, which caused her to bleed out but delivered no skull fracture or contusion, leaving her actual cause of death a mystery. Kathleen also had an injury to her thyroid which suggested strangulation, but in fact, strangulation was probably not the cause of the injury and was never a major part of the murder theory.

Despite all this confusing and contradictory evidence, things looked grim for Peterson from the outset. In his previous role as a contrarian liberal columnist for the Durham Herald-Sun, Peterson had criticized members of local law enforcement as well as District Attorney James Hardin — a circ*mstance which later suggested to Peterson that the prosecution was eager for revenge. For his defense, Peterson hired esteemed trial lawyer David Rudolf.

In 2002, French documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, having just won an Oscar for his true crime documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning, was looking for his next project. Peterson’s trial appealed to him because it was just getting underway, and the documentary team would have an opportunity to do what few documentaries had attempted until then — film the full process of bringing a case to the courtroom. Ultimately, when their initial round of filming concluded in 2003, Peterson was found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Little did the filmmakers know the journey for Peterson and their documentary was just beginning. Peterson would spend eight years in prison, exhausting his appeals — until new evidence, aided by the documentary itself, changed everything.

The Peterson case saw one twist after another

In many ways, The Staircase is a compilation of Rorschach tests: When you look at Kathleen Peterson’s death, do you see a fall down stairs, a brutal murder, or something else? When you study Michael Peterson, do you see an innocent man or a charming sociopath? When you listen to his 911 call, do you hear panic or calculation? And when you look at the evidence proffered by the state and rebutted by the defense, do you see proof or do you have reasonable doubt?

The Staircase has its flaws. It’s long, often spends too much time letting its main character talk about himself, and has come under fire for being biased in favor of the defendant. (More on that in a moment.)

But it’s also addictive. Michael Peterson, playing himself, is just strange enough to be the star The Staircase needed. He’s inappropriately charismatic, performatively debonair, and a polished liar. He quotes Shakespeare, listens to Mahler, tells the sex workers he hires how much he loves his wife, and writes first-person novel passages about the joy of committing murder. Yet whether you believe Peterson’s alleged dark side exists or not, on camera he also comes across as laid back and loving, missing his wife and heading a family stalwartly supporting his innocence. (Caitlin, Kathleen’s daughter, broke with her step-siblings by accusing Michael of murder.)

Peterson’s attorney also cuts a winning figure. Wry but earnest, David Rudolf systematically chips away at the evidence; he rolls with every prosecutorial punch (and there are many) until he’s created a thorough argument for reasonable doubt. His defense becomes a celebration of excellence.

Still, Peterson and Rudolf alone might not have been enough to make The Staircase the seminal true crime documentary series it became, had the case itself not unfolded in real time, on camera, with one whiplash-inducing turn after another.

Staff photo by Derek Davis/Portland Portland Press Herald via Getty Images

The first twist all but turns The Staircase into pure Southern Gothic melodrama: The prosecution, accessing Peterson’s computer (possibly without a proper warrant) discovered Michael was bisexual and had been engaging in hom*osexual dalliances on the side. It’s unclear whether Kathleen knew about Michael’s secret sex life, although he insisted she did. The prosecution’s demonization of Michael Peterson for his bisexuality became one of the focal points of the trial, with lawyers arguing it spoke to motive and called his entire character into question. Whether it actually does, like everything else in The Staircase, is debatable.

The second huge twist helped provide the documentary title. Over 15 years earlier, Peterson’s next-door neighbor Elizabeth Ratliff — the mother of Margaret and Martha, Peterson’s adopted children — was found dead at the bottom of her staircase. The last known person to see her alive? Michael Peterson. (One of the best moments in The Staircase comes in episode three, when Rudolf, learning of this development, simply reacts with: “Nope.”) Although the original autopsy concluded Ratliff died of a brain aneurysm, the coincidence of Peterson being the last known person to see two different women alive before they both wound up dead at the foot of stairs proved too wild not to explore. The prosecution exhumed Ratliff’s body and pushed hard to imply a connection between the two deaths, but this evidence just underscored how circ*mstantial the case against Peterson was.

The third huge twist gets captured on camera. The prosecution alleged the murder weapon was a Peterson family fireplace poker that had mysteriously “gone missing” — until the family found it collecting dust in the basem*nt, blood-free. Years later, Rudolf learned police allegedly knew the fire poker wasn’t the murder weapon from the start.

The final huge twist ultimately won Peterson freedom. Duane Deaver, the prosecution’s chief witness, was a blood spatter expert employed in North Carolina’s state crime lab by the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI). According to The Staircase, jurors in Peterson’s trial were initially split over his guilt or innocence, but relied on Deaver’s blood spatter testimony to come to their guilty verdict.

The problem: Deaver had no training in forensics. During Peterson’s trial, he exaggerated his credentials and lied on the stand about his practical experience. Deaver claimed to have visited hundreds of crime scenes but had actually visited just 17. Due to these and other incidents of lab misconduct, the FBI audited the SBI and found the lab had withheld results favorable to the defense in hundreds of cases. Convictions across the state were re-examined. Many of them, including Peterson’s, were overturned. Today, blood spatter analysis, once so dominant in the field of forensics, is considered almost complete junk science.

Judge Orlando Hudson granted Peterson a new trial in 2011. Peterson remained released under court monitoring while awaiting a new court date. As captured in the final 2017 episodes of the Staircase documentary, Peterson pled guilty in 2017 under an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to proclaim their innocence while acknowledging the state has enough evidence to convict them. Whether the state actually did is dubious: For the documentary’s final episode, Judge Hudson reflected that if he were running the trial again, he likely would have disallowed testimony involving Peterson’s sexuality and disallowed testimony regarding Elizabeth Ratliff’s death.

Peterson’s trial had many side issues with prosecutorial team corruption, even beyond what we see in The Staircase. The district attorney who launched Peterson’s trial, Mike Nifong, was disbarred in 2007 because of extensive deceit and malfeasance regarding the Duke lacrosse scandal in 2006. Tracey Cline, the district attorney who argued against Peterson in 2011, was removed from the position in 2012 after a judge found she made statements “with malice and reckless disregard for the truth” about Judge Orlando Hudson, who oversaw the Peterson case.

During the trial, one prosecution expert witness, Saami Shaibani, exaggerated his connection to Temple University and had his testimony (which involved dubious experiments in which he observed volunteers falling down stairs) expunged from the trial record. To top it all off, the final episodes of the Staircase allege that assistant medical examiner Deborah Radisch, who autopsied Kathleen and ruled her death a homicide, initially felt her cause of death was blood loss, notblunt-force trauma. Rudolf alleges Radisch was pressured to change her initial opinion by the chief medical examiner.

All of these incidents of corruption show how stacked the odds were against Peterson. But the documentary proved to be a huge ally in his favor. In the 2011 hearing to determine whether Peterson would get a new trial, Rudolf used footage taken from The Staircase which captured how crucial Deaver’s testimony was for the prosecution. Both he and Peterson believe without The Staircase they might never have proven their argument.

De Lestrade’s work reveals its own biases. From the start, it frames Peterson and his defense as heroic underdogs fighting an unjust prosecutorial witch hunt. Part of this is a byproduct of access, since the Durham DA shut the film crew out of their investigation while the defense remained transparent throughout the court process. Still, the film crew’s fondness for Michael comes through both on camera and in the editing. The Staircase eventually abandons all pretense at objectivity.

That could be because there’s another huge twist you won’t find in The Staircase: French editor Sophie Brunet, who edited all 13 episodes of The Staircase, fell in love with Peterson during the process. She and Peterson corresponded while he was in prison and later dated for many years — all while she continued to edit the series! The new fictionalized series turns this into a large plot point, and it’s no wonder: The Staircase’s point of view is one of its main selling points, but its clear bias is also its Achilles’ heel. The documentary omits much of the case against Michael, including a possible motive: Kathleen’s hefty life insurance payout. Rudolf has pushed back against this idea, noting the prosecution backed off from a financial motive. But for many viewers, learning details like these outside of the documentary undermines its credibility.

Just in case you aren’t disoriented yet from all these record-scratch moments, there’s one last item we have to discuss.

The owl theory

Near the end of Peterson’s trial, the Petersons’ neighbor, lawyer Larry Pollard, came up with a startling new alternate theory for the case. Those weird scalp lacerations seemed to fit neither the prosecution nor the defense’s scenario for what happened to Kathleen. What if they were caused not by a mysterious weapon, but by the talons of an owl?

Pollard approached police, who ridiculed the idea, and Rudolf, who later told Vulture he wished Pollard had “realized it six months earlier” so it could have been a proper part of the defense.

The owl theory has become a standing true crime joke — but it has legions of proponents, including ornithologists. Not only do her scalp wounds look talon-shaped, but — wait for it — at least one microscopic owl feather was found at the crime scene. Kathleen was clutching a clump of her own hair which Pollard claimed held more feathers, or possibly feather fragments. Pine needles and twigs were also with her body, and blood was found on the outside of the house. What’s more, barred owls, which can be aggressive, were known to live in the neighborhood.

On its face the owl theory sounds absurd. But it explains the most irreconcilable aspect of the Peterson case: how Kathleen could have received those gouge-like scalp injuries but no skull fracture or contusion. The prosecution never explained this. The owl theory also accounts for Kathleen’s suspicious thyroid injury, an odd puncture wound which the defense likewise failed to address. Rudolf now keeps a section on his website enumerating reasons the owl theory makes sense.

In the years since The Staircase, Peterson has written his own book, Behind the Staircase. His children live private lives, though his son Todd recently filmed a bizarre video in which he accused his father of murdering Kathleen and deliberately failing to call 911 for Todd’s birth mother Patty, who died of a heart attack in 2021. No updates on these allegations have followed.

Meanwhile, The Staircase seems to grow more important as the years pass. Even with its subjective bias, it vividly reveals the character of a certain type of overprivileged white man at the turn of the millennium. Michael Peterson appears to be a modern-day Don Draper, skilled at lying, self-aggrandizement, and performing importance without actually being important.

It also reveals the daily workings of a troubled justice system, and the many ways an overzealous prosecution can misfire through shaky forensics, a reliance on moral panic, and grandiose speculation. We see why thorough trial defenses are so prohibitively expensive for the average low-income defendant, while also seeing just what a good defense money can buy. The Staircase ultimately shows us that even with all the money in the world, corruption in the judicial system can make a fair defense impossible.

Finally, that Rorschach test. The Staircase serves an early slice of the epistemic crisis in which we now find ourselves. “Sometimes I think they’re watching a different trial,” the late defense investigator Ron Guerette said at one point during the documentary, while watching court commentators dissect the caseon Nancy Grace. Every aspect of this case remains debatable. Meanwhile, The Staircase’s influence over the modern true crime landscape shows no sign of waning.

As for who or what killed Kathleen Peterson, 20 years later we still don’t know. But with the arrival of the new series, sleuths discovering the case daily, and the Petersons continuing to draw our fascination, one thing seems clear: We’re not about to stop asking.

The owl did it, and other reasons true crime fans love The Staircase (2024)
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