The Sad, Gruesome and Confusing True Story of 'The Staircase' (2024)

You might have got hooked on The Staircase when Netflix re-upped it in 2018, or maybe you were an early adopter when Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s documentary series first landed in 2004. Maybe you’re completely new to the case of the death of Kathleen Peterson and the prosecution of her husband Michael for her murder.

If so, get ready to add a raft of new words and phrases to your vocabulary. Blowpoke. Owl theory. Alford plea. The trial of Michael Peterson saw untold twists and revelations, and a new HBO miniseries starring Colin Firth as Michael and Toni Collette as Kathleen looks likely to blow the whole thing open again. Here’s what really happened.

The Sad, Gruesome and Confusing True Story of 'The Staircase' (1)

Who are Michael and Kathleen Peterson?

Michael Peterson was born near Nashville, Tennessee in 1943. After college he worked for the Department of Defense and married Patricia Sue, a teacher in West Germany in 1968. The couple had two boys, Todd and Clayton, and Peterson fought in the Vietnam war before being honourably discharged in 1971. He later became an author of Vietnam war novels, and wrote columns for the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper when the family moved to Durham, North Carolina.

Michael and Patricia became close with the Ratliff family while they lived in West Germany, and when parents Elizabeth and George died – he in a military operation, she in suspicious circ*mstances – Michael became the guardian of their children Margaret and Martha. When Michael and Patricia divorced in 1987, Margaret and Martha stayed with Michael and Todd and Clayton stayed with Patricia. Later, the boys joined their dad too.

Kathleen was a telecoms exec who met Michael in 1986. The couple moved in in 1989 and married in 1997.

What happened to Kathleen Peterson?

On 9 December 2001, Michael Peterson called 911. He had, he said, found her unconscious in their home in Durham. He later explained that the couple had been relaxing by their pool that evening, and that when Kathleen headed inside he had stayed outside to smoke a pipe.

"My wife had an accident," Peterson told the emergency services on the phone. "She's still breathing. She fell down the stairs."

Kathleen was "splayed out on the floor, her head resting on the landing of a back staircase," according to Detective Art Holland of Durham police, who was immediately suspicious. That, it was later revealed, was very similar to how Elizabeth Ratliff had died back in 1985.

Peterson later suggested that Kathleen had stumbled down the stairs while under the influence of alcohol and Valium, though that was not borne out by the toxicology report. A bottle of wine and two glasses were laid out in the kitchen, but Kathleen’s fingerprints were on neither glass.

A medical examiner found that Kathleen had, in fact, been bludgeoned to death and suffered multiple lacerations on her scalp. The blood there had dried, implying she had been there some time.

As Peterson was the only other person in the house at the time, he was the prime suspect.

What happened in 'The Staircase' trial?

The prosecution suggested that Michael Peterson had murdered his wife following a fight between them, supposedly sparked by Kathleen’s discovery of more than 2,000 pictures of naked men on Michael’s computer.

As well as that, they suggested Kathleen had seen emails between Michael and a young male escort he had met four months prior and was apparently planning to reunite with. They also suggested that Kathleen’s $1.5m life insurance policy was at stake for Peterson. He had, they alleged, taken a blowpoke – a hollow metal tube used for stoking a fire – and hit Kathleen repeatedly over the head.

The defence pushed back, saying that Kathleen accepted Michael’s bisexuality and that the blowpoke had suffered no damage and showed no remnants of blood. The jury reportedly sided with the defence there.

However, on 10 October 2003 the jury found Michael guilty and sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole. He was shocked.

"I didn't do anything,” he reportedly said following the verdict. “I'm innocent. I did not believe until the jury clerk read the sentence that I would be convicted."

What is the owl theory in 'The Staircase'?

Five years after Peterson was convicted of Kathleen’s murder, his neighbour Larry Pollard put forward an alternative theory: that Kathleen had neither accidentally fallen to her death, nor been killed by Peterson.

Pollard suggested via a string of YouTube videos that the injuries to Kathleen’s scalp suggested she could have been attacked by a barred owl, which are apparently quite common in the Petersons’ area of North Carolina. His theory ran that such an owl had got into the Peterson house and, on seeing Kathleen, became startled and scared and attacked her so she either fell down the stairs from the top or while attempting to climb them.

It turned out not to be quite as wild as it originally sounded. In 2009 a reexamination of the evidence showed that Kathleen was found with a tiny feather in her hair and that wood from a tree limb was tangled up in the hair which had been pulled out of her head by the roots. Three owl experts testified via affidavits to the possibility of the owl theory.

Peterson’s lead defence attorney David Rudolf told Vulture that he was persuaded by the the theory, but that he was unaware of it at the time of the original trial.

"When you step back and really start getting familiar with the fact that there have been literally scores if not hundreds of documented instances of owls attacking the heads of people… and you look at the wounds and you compare them with the talons of an owl, it starts having some real credibility," he said.

The Sad, Gruesome and Confusing True Story of 'The Staircase' (4)

Is Michael Peterson still in jail?

No. In another twist, a judge vacated the jury’s verdict in 2011 and ordered a retrial. A blood splatter analyst had, the judge ruled, given false and misleading testimony in the original trial, making the conviction unsound.

The saga continued until February 2017, when Peterson entered an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter. Under an Alford plea, someone accused of murder can admit that a prosecution has enough evidence to convict them, but not admit guilt for the crime.

He was sentenced to 86 weeks in prison, but because he’d already served more than that he went free. He still lives in Durham, but has since sold the house where Kathleen died.

When was the original documentary made?

As mentioned above, the original documentary – known alternatively as Suspicions and Death on a Staircase – was released in 2004. The English-language miniseries was produced by the French documentarian Xavier de Lestrade, who’d previously won an Oscar for Murder on a Sunday Morning, which covered the case of a Black teenager in America who was wrongly accused of murder. It's a hard one to find online, but you can get a home copy here.

Lestrade released a follow-up to the original documentary in 2013, following Michael Peterson upon his release from prison, and then revisited the case again to cover his final trial. In 2018, Netflix made all thirteen episodes available, and the rest is true crime TV history. As yet, there are no reported plans to revisit the case.

The Sad, Gruesome and Confusing True Story of 'The Staircase' (2024)
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