'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (2024)

The Staircase

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (1)

By Elisa Guimarães


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'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (2)

The Big Picture

  • Michael Peterson served time in prison for the murder of his wife Kathleen, but was granted a new trial in 2011 due to misleading testimony from a key prosecution witness.
  • After his release, Michael lived with his ex-wife Patty and wrote two books about the case, with proceeds going to charity. He has largely stayed out of the spotlight and criticized the HBO miniseries about his story.
  • Other important characters from the case, such as Michael's children Todd and Clayton, as well as Kathleen's daughters Margaret and Caitlin, have moved on with their lives and pursued various careers.

Whenever there's a movie or TV series based on real-life events, viewers are plagued by two unavoidable questions: how much of what we saw is true, and what happened to those characters after the cameras were turned off? HBO Max’s true crime drama The Staircase is no exception to this rule. Created by Antonio Campos, the eight-episode long miniseries stars Colin Firth and Toni Collette as novelist Michael Peterson and his second wife, Nortel executive, Kathleen Peterson. In 2001, Kathleen died on the staircase of the Peterson home in Durham, North Carolina. Despite claiming his wife had fallen down the stairs, Michael Peterson was charged with her murder and convicted to life imprisonment in 2003 after one of the longest trials in North Carolina’s history.

The Staircase follows Michael’s more than decade-long legal battle for freedom and paints a portrait of the Peterson family both before and after Kathleen’s death. It also chronicles the work of French documentarist Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, who, from 2003 to 2018, worked on a docuseries about the case also titled The Staircase. Lestrade’s documentary played an important part in the Peterson affair and served as the main inspiration for Campos’ show. In the final episode of the miniseries, we see Michael Peterson starting to get his life back on track as a free man. But what happened to him after he took that Alford plea in 2017? And what about all the other characters that were so important to the story? Here’s what went on in their lives after the events portrayed in The Staircase.

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (3)
The Staircase


Tells the story of Michael Peterson, a crime novelist accused of killing his wife Kathleen after she is found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their home, and the 16-year judicial battle that followed.

Michael Peterson

Sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Kathleen Peterson, Michael was granted a new trial in 2011 when it was brought to light that a key prosecution witness had given misleading information under oath. Blood-spatter analyst Duane Deaver (Myke Holmes) was found to have exaggerated his credentials in the field of forensic investigation. Since Deaver’s testimony was what eventually led the jury to agree upon Michael’s guilt, the writer was released in 2011 under a $300,000 bail and placed under house arrest. As shown in the miniseries, Michael took the Alford plea in 2017, pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to seven years and a month in prison but got out right away having already served eight years after his first trial.

After breaking up with Sophie (Juliette Binoche) and refusing to move to Paris, Michael went to live with his ex-wife Patty (Trini Alvarado). Now 80 years old, he lives alone in a ground-floor apartment in Durham, North Carolina, and has since sold the house he shared with Kathleen. He got back to writing and released two books telling his side of the story: 2019’s Behind the Staircase and 2020’s Beyond the Staircase. Since Michael can’t profit from his crime, the proceeds from the books’ sales go to charity. Part of the money also went to Kathleen's daughter, Caitlin (Olivia DeJonge), who filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Peterson in 2007. The claim was settled for $25 million. Michael Peterson has mostly stayed out of the spotlight. He was less than pleased with the HBO Max miniseries and claimed to feel betrayed by documentarist Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. In a series of emails to Variety, he accused Lestrade of pimping him and his family out. Still, he admits that Lestrade's work was instrumental in getting him out of prison.

In a 2022 interview with the Wrongful Conviction podcast, he talked about the role of the documentary in his trial and criticized the HBO miniseries, calling it “an abomination” and stating that Campos trashed his family’s life. Nonetheless, he admits that his case has all the makings of a good true crime drama: “Now we have the real thing: sex, money, and murder: The Michael Peterson case. And so, instead of watching some fictionalized account, we see the real thing happening. And that spawned other real-life programs ... it's just a tragedy that there's this great appetite that people have for sex, murder, and money. It'll never go away now, it's just a part of our culture.”

Todd Peterson

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (4)

Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger) stood by his father's side throughout every twist and turn of the case. Much like his character in The Staircase, he cultivated a strong social media presence. However, since the release of the HBO miniseries, his Instagram profile has been deleted. Before going AWOL, however, he changed his mind about his dad’s involvement in Kathleen’s death. In a livestream that has since been uploaded to YouTube, he accuses Michael of murdering not only Kathleen, but also his mother, Patricia, and family friend Elizabeth. According to him, Michael waited three hours to call 911 while Patty was having a heart attack. Todd also claims his father cheated on Patty with Kathleen. Despite now believing his father to be guilty, he still considers The Staircase to be “nonsense.”

Clayton Peterson

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (5)

As shown in the miniseries, Clayton Peterson (Dane DeHaan) served four years in prison for an attempted bombing at Duke University years before Kathleen Peterson’s death. His character in the show is a troubled young man who decides to turn his life around. And, from what it seems, things have turned out for the best for the real Clayton. He currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he works as an engineer. He’s still married to Becky (Hannah Pniewski), with whom he has two children. Unlike Michael and Todd, he has never spoken publicly about The Staircase.

Margaret Ratliff

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (6)

Played by Sophie Turner, Margaret is the eldest daughter of Air Force captain George Ratliff and his wife, Elizabeth, who lived next door to Michael and Patty Peterson in Germany. Soon after George’s death in an overseas operation, in 1983, Elizabeth lost her life in circ*mstances so similar to Katherine’s death that her body was exhumed during Michael’s trial in search of evidence of foul play.

Following Elizabeth’s death, Margaret and her younger sister Martha (Odessa Young) were adopted by the Petersons. After Michael and Patty’s divorce, they went to live with Michael and Kathleen, whom they called mom, in the United States. Nowadays, Margaret lives in California and works in the entertainment industry as an actor, assistant director, and production manager, among other things.

Margaret was already interested in pursuing a career in film when her family was approached by Lestrade and his crew. However, back in 2002, streaming hadn’t been invented yet, and young Margaret had no idea just how much her life would be in the public eye in the following decades. In an interview with Vanity Fair, she said that Lestrade’s The Staircase cost her many job opportunities in the documentary world, including at Netflix. In 2022, Margaret co-produced a documentary feature titled Subject, directed by Jennifer Tiexiera and Camilla Hall. The film, which examines the ethics of documentary filmmaking, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Margaret and Michael are both featured in the movie as interviewees. Like other members of her family, Margaret hasn’t received a dime from HBO and claims to have been deceived by Campos, who allegedly told her he would be focusing more on the documentarists than on the Petersons.

Martha Ratliff

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (7)

Elizabeth Ratliff’s death had a huge impact on her youngest daughter, Martha (Odessa Young). After Kathleen passed, the young woman developed a severe form of anxiety, aggravated by Michael’s long and public battle against the justice system. In Lestrade’s docuseries, she speaks at length about her mental health issues. Currently living in Colorado, Martha works as a psychotherapist, helping people who suffer from the same problems that afflicted her.

Caitlin Atwater

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (8)

Portrayed by Olivia DeJonge, Caitlin was Kathleen’s only biological child and the sole child from the Peterson household to believe that Michael was responsible for her mother’s death. Still estranged from her step-siblings, she currently lives with her husband and twin children in Virginia. In 2002, Caitlin filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Michael. They settled in 2007 for $25 million. Caitlin’s lawyer filed another complaint against him after his release in 2017, in order to discourage him from making money from the case.

Sophie Brunet

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (9)

Sophie and Michael were together from 2004 to 2017. However, Brunet claims to have waited until she was finished with the eight original episodes of The Staircase before sending her first letter to Peterson. She didn’t like the idea of being a character in Campos’ miniseries and felt betrayed by the showrunner. Still, she agreed to meet with Juliette Binoche and told Vanity Fair that her relationship with the actress was “an unexpected happy ending to my painful story."

Brunet still works as a film and TV editor in France. Her most high-profile works have been in the critically acclaimed movie Blue Is the Warmest Color and in the Netflix series Call My Agent! Her partnership with de Lestrade is still going strong, with Brunet having edited his two TV series after The Staircase, the true crime drama Laëtitia, and the political thriller Jeux d’Influence.

David Rudolf

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (10)

Still married to journalist Sonya Pfeiffer (Teri Wyble), defense attorney David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg) relocated to Toronto in 2021, where he works for litigation and corporate law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. He is, however, still connected with his own firm, Rudolf Widenhouse. Alongside Pfeiffer, Rudolf is the owner of the Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art, in Charlotte, North Carolina. The couple also hosts a podcast together, Abuse of Power, which focuses on stories of people victimized by the justice system. The topic is also at the center of Rudolf’s 2022 book, American Injustice: Inside Stories from the Underbelly of the Criminal Justice System.

Much like his client, Rudolf took issue with Campos’ version of events, especially with scenes that implied Michael kept information from him and that his professional relationship with Pfeiffer was unethical. Speaking with Variety, he also complained about his characterization in the show, singling out the scene in which he and Michael chat over a pastrami sandwich: “We could have put a little blimp over my head saying, ‘Jewish lawyer from New York’”.

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (11)

Played by Vincent Vermignon, de Lestrade was already an Academy Award winner when he got involved with Michael Peterson’s case. In 2002, his film Murder on a Sunday Morning, about the wrongful accusation of a Black teenager for the murder of a tourist in Jacksonville, Florida, took home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. With The Staircase, de Lestrade embarked on a project that took him 15 years to finish, with the final episodes of the documentary coming out only in 2018. However, de Lestrade’s involvement with the Peterson story didn’t end there, as he was the one to sell the story to Campos. Much like Peterson and Brunet, he was also not happy with the fictional adaptation of his docuseries and claimed that Campos misinterpreted facts in a way that painted him as an unethical filmmaker.

As shown in the HBO Max miniseries, de Lestrade went into fiction after working on The Staircase. Since the release of the docuseries’ three final episodes, he has directed two fictional series in France. 2020’s Laëtitia is a true crime drama about the 2011 abduction of 18-year-old Laëtitia Perrais. The political thriller Jeux d’Influence had two seasons released between 2018 and 2022 on the European streaming service Arte.

Bill Peterson

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (12)

Despite not being an official member of the defense team, Bill Peterson (Tim Guinee) played a huge role in getting his brother Michael out of jail. A lawyer himself, Bill was the one who suggested Rudolf as a defense attorney and took care of most of the Petersons’ legal matters. After Michael’s release, Bill moved back to Reno, Nevada, where he lives with his family and works as a practicing partner in a full-service local firm.

Patty Peterson

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (13)

The real Patty (Trini Alvarado) not only stood by her ex-husband’s side throughout the trials, but she also took him in after his release. They lived together in Durham up until Patty’s death from a heart attack in 2021. Patty’s death, however, is surrounded by its fair share of mystery and controversy. Her son, Todd, has accused Michael of waiting over three hours to call 911 after realizing that Patty was feeling sick. The reason, according to him, was money. Ever since Patty died, Todd changed his mind about his dad’s involvement in Kathleen’s death, and now believes to have murdered not only his stepmom but also Elizabeth Ratliff.

Candace Zamperini

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (14)

The most vocal of Kathleen’s sisters, Candace (Rosemarie DeWitt) was the one to present the prosecution with the alleged murder weapon, a fireplace poker, or blow poke, that she had given the Petersons for Christmas. Nowadays, she prefers to stay away from the spotlight, living a quiet life in Alexandria, Virginia.

Duane Deaver

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (15)

At the time of Kathleen’s death, Deaver (portrayed by Myke Holmes in the show) worked as a blood spatter analyst for the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI). During Peterson’s trial, he testified that the blood spatters surrounding the spot in which Kathleen had died were consistent with a person being beaten to death. He also stated that he had worked on 500 bloodstain cases.

Deaver’s ethics and expertise were first put into question regarding the wrongful conviction of Greg Taylor, in 1993, for the murder of Jacquetta Thomas. It soon came to light that not only had Deaver exaggerated the number of cases in which he had worked, but he also had no proper forensics training and was guilty of lab misconduct. He was fired from his job in 2011. He tried to fight it, but his firing was upheld in court in 2014. Still, in the same year, the North Carolina Human Resources Commission ruled that he should have merely been demoted from his position and that the SBI owed him 34 months of wages.

Freda Black

'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now? (16)

As shown in the miniseries, Assistant District Attorney Freda Black (Parker Posey) quit law and started working as a cleaner in the decade following Michael’s conviction. Before that, she ran twice for District Attorney, in 2006 and 2008, but never got the job. She also campaigned for the Durham County District Court, to no avail. Black died in 2018, at age 57 of end-stage liver disease.

The Staircase is available to stream on Max.

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