The True Story Behind 'The Staircase': How Accurate Is the HBO Max Series? (2024)

The HBO limited series, The Staircase, starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette is the fascinating story has riveted people for over two decades now. But what really happened? Just how faithful was the series to the true story? In reality, it’s hard to say, as we will always get different sides of the story. But as far as we know, here is the story of the real case.

The Incident

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In December 2001, 48-year-old Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of the staircase in her home in Durham, North Carolina. Her husband of four years, Michael, called 911 and reported the death. His son, Todd, came home soon after and was the only other family member to also see Kathleen's body.

The autopsy concluded that Kathleen died by homicide due to blunt force trauma. Michael was arrested and charged with the murder of Kathleen. Peterson’s sons from his first marriage, Todd and Clayton, as well as his adopted daughters, Margaret and Martha Ratliff, stood by his side. However, Kathleen’s daughter, Caitlin, along with Kathleen’s sisters, decided to be witnesses for the prosecution.

RELATED: HBO Max's 'The Staircase' and What True Crime Media Owes Its Subjects

The Case

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Peterson was charged with first degree murder, and hired David Rudolf to lead his defense team against the DA and ADA Jim Hardin and Freda Black, respectively. The defense claimed it was all an accident and the prosecution claimed it was cold-blooded murder. The defense had their work cut out for them, when the prosecution discovered that Kathleen wasn’t the first person Michael had found dead at the bottom of a staircase. While living in Germany with his first wife Patty, Michael found Elizabeth Ratliff dead at the bottom of her stairs. Michael wound up adopting Elizabeth’s daughters, Margaret and Martha. The girls gave their consent to have Elizabeth’s body exhumed, and the medical examiner found that Ratliff did not die from an aneurysm as previously thought, but from a homicide.

As for a motive, the prosecution claimed that Kathleen had discovered Michael was bisexual and regularly had affairs with men. This discovery led to a confrontation that ended with Michael killing Kathleen. They also seemed to locate a theoretical murder weapon called a blow poke, a fireplace tool used for fanning fires. There was also a theory put forth that an owl attacked and killed Kathleen. The owl theory gained a bit of a cult following, but never gained too much traction in the legal system.

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Michael was convicted of first degree murder in 2003, and sentenced to life without parole. Rudolf filed appeals but they were denied. Eight years later, North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation Agent Duane Deaver was investigated for alleged mishandling of numerous cases, including the Peterson case. In 2011, Michael was granted a new trial, and was released from prison, sentenced to house arrest. The retrial process drug on for the next six years, and in 2017, Peterson and the prosecution reached a deal that he would sign an Alford plea. Peterson’s Alford plea stated that he had entered a guilty plea to the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter in exchange for time already served. He still proclaims his innocence.

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When trial preparations were underway, Peterson and the defense team were approached by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade about making a documentary on the defense strategy and the trial. Peterson agreed. Lestrade had received critical acclaim and won an Oscar for his documentary, Murder on a Sunday Morning in 2001. The documentary The Staircase (Soupçons in French) was released in 2004 as a 10-episode miniseries. The documentary was a hit and gained a huge following of people both in support of Peterson and people assuming he was guilty. Three new episodes were filmed at the time of the Alford plea, and released in 2018 on Netflix.

In 2022, HBO released the aforementioned eight-episode limited series. The story is told in a non-linear fashion through flashbacks and flash-forwards to encapsulate the 20 years since the incident occurred. The documentary filmmakers did take issue with the series in that it portrayed them as biased, filming Michael in a more sympathetic manner, rather than remaining neutral. However, both the documentary and the series have been met with positive reviews from critics and audiences alike.

Throughout the years, the case has fascinated the true crime world. There have been episodes on Forensic Files, Cold Case, American Justice, Dateline NBC, True Crime with Aphrodite Jones, Dominick Dunne’s Power, Privilege, and Justice, and The Devil you Know, just to name a few. And the Criminal, My Favorite Murder, and Generation Why podcasts have all featured episodes about the case as well. For a satirical spin on the case, the first season of NBC’s short-lived comedy, Trial and Error is loosely based on the Peterson case as well.

Where Are They Now?

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DA Jim Hardin became a judge in 2009 and retired in 2021. David Rudolf still practices law and hosts a podcast entitled Abuse of Power. As of 2005, ADA Freda Black had left the law profession. She passed away in 2018 from natural causes.

Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade still makes documentaries. His latest is based on the murder of Laetitia Perrais and is available on HBO Max. Producer Denis Poncet passed away in 2014 from cancer.

Michael Peterson is a free man. After he signed the Alford Plea in 2017, he was sentenced to time already served. He still resides in Durham and has written two books about his experience with the trials. All proceeds were donated to charity. He and Sophie had a relationship for years, but it ended when he decided not to relocate to France with her. Sophie worked on the owl theory for many years and is still convinced that it was how Kathleen died. Michael's ex-wife Patty passed away in 2021 after a heart attack. She remained supportive of him until her death.

The kids have all settled down around the country and started their own families. Clayton, Todd, Margaret, and Martha still stand firmly with their father, and Candace, Lori, and Caitlin still firmly stand against him. No one in the Peterson family had any interest in participating in or watching the HBO series and have slammed its inaccuracies and fabrication.

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The True Story Behind 'The Staircase': How Accurate Is the HBO Max Series? (2024)
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