June 9, 2018

"The Staircase": Netflix's True Crime Docuseries on the Michael Peterson Trial

True crime documentaries have long been an obsession for me.  Netflix has recently entered the genre with a serious intent to play.  The Staircase allows Netflix to really up its game because, in short, the series is flat out excellent.

The Peterson family - Kathleen and Michael in the center
I thought I had a fair understanding of the Michael Peterson case.  A quick recap:  Peterson, a journalist and novelist and one-time mayoral candidate, was charged and convicted of killing his wife Kathleen by pushing her down the stairs at their Durham, North Carolina home and then beating her to death.  The prosecution put forward as a motive that the marriage was less than the idyllic one Peterson claimed, as evidenced by Peterson's solicitation of gay escorts.  It was this bisexual lifestyle, which the prosecution suggested was secret, that Kathleen Peterson had learnt about and led to her death.

The Staircase follows the Peterson defense team in real life (well, real time for 2001 - 2003 and then again in 2011, 2014, 2016 and 2017) as they talk to Peterson about everything from his bisexuality to his family to what happened the night Kathleen died.  The viewer gets authentic behind the scenes action of a legal team preparing for a criminal trial, including pretrial planning, diagrams, autopsy reports and crime scene photos.  Pictures of Kathleen Peterson in death, the wall and floor splashed with blood, close ups of her damaged head, shaved so the lacerations could be seen, are not for the faint of heart.  Those who are overly sensitive to language and sex may also feel uncomfortable; there is a bit of profanity and sexual innuendo from emails Peterson sent to a prospective date, as well as photos.

The staircase where Kathleen died
But it's necessary in order to fully go behind the scenes of the real nitty gritty in a murder trial, which is never pretty.  We see everything the defense has and is confronted with, including Michael Peterson's own shortcomings and personality flaws.  Knowing the outcome of the case does not make The Staircase any less interesting.

Perhaps the most important thing The Staircase does is expose the flaws and difficulties in our legal system.  Whether you believe that Michael Peterson killed his wife or not, the fact is the evidence simply wasn't there to convict for first-degree murder.  While the motive the prosecution put forward had merit, so too did the defense's experts who said the evidence pointed toward an accident fall rather than murder.  The 1985 death of Michael Peterson's former neighbor, found dead at the foot of a staircase, an eerily reminiscent portend to Kathleen Peterson's death, was submitted as further evidence that Michael Peterson is a killer.  But again, there seems to be no hard and fast evidence that Peterson had anything to do with that death which cannot conclusively be called a homicide, especially given that she suffered from medical conditions that gave her severe headaches in the weeks immediately prior to her death.  The state of North Carolina, while allowed to admit Elizabeth Ratliff's death into the Peterson trial as evidence of Peterson's M.O., did not outright accuse him of murdering Ratliff but they insinuated that she was his first victim.  

The Peterson home
I found that The Staircase left me with more questions than I entered the series with.  Believing in Michael Peterson's guilt as episode one began, I'm now unsure.  There was no smoking gun in this case, no surprise witnesses.  The state's theory is entirely plausible -- that Kathleen found out about her husband's homosexual infidelity -- but so too is the defense's - - that Kathleen knew her husband was bisexual and accepted it.  The state's expert at first seemed credible and the story put forth makes sense until it's discovered that that expert -- an FBI agent -- was discredited for framing another man in a 1991 murder.  That man, after spending 17 years in prison, was exonerated after the evidence was found to be faulty.  Could that expert have done the same to Michael Peterson?

On the other hand, could a fall down the stairs have caused multiple lacerations to Kathleen's head without skull fractures?  If Michael Peterson had bludgeoned Kathleen, wouldn't it be likely to have skull fractures?

One piece of information that I appreciated was that she likely fell down the stairs while attempting to climb up them; I always believed she fell down face first, while descending them and I couldn't understand how she had injuries to the back of her head in that case.  Falling backwards down the stairs, however, could account for that damage.

The Staircase is very much worth a viewer's time.  It's an emotional roller coaster where you waiver between grief, anger, frustration and yearning.  It's addictive and very difficult to stop once you start.  I marathoned the entire thing in one sitting (and my aching back is proof.)  My mind is still rehashing this case, back and forth, looking for a resolution, a definitive answer.

I don't have that definitive answer and neither did The Staircase.  I can't in my own mind say with certainty that I feel Michael Peterson is guilty of Kathleen's death, nor can I absolutely say he's innocent.  I can say that he didn't get a fair trial initially with the deceptive (or downright corrupt) FBI agent and I don't believe Elizabeth Ratliff's death should have been introduced as it was highly prejudicial.  I can say based on the evidence presented, the majority of which was circumstantial, had I been on that jury, I would never have voted to convict for first-degree murder (the only options were first-degree or acquittal.)

I feel sad for Kathleen Peterson, who died too early.  I feel sad for the Peterson children, who effectively lost both parents, and whose grief, agony and pain in so very evident on their faces and in their tears.  I feel sad for Kathleen's sisters, who continue to suffer the loss of their sibling.  I even feel sorry for Michael Peterson, who could be wholly innocent of any wrongdoing in regard to Kathleen's death, and has spent more than 16 years considered a suspect, a killer and more than 8 years in prison.  If he is guilty, he has paid with a loss of freedom (even for just a time), loss of home, finances and health.  More frightening, if he's not guilty, he's done time for a crime he didn't commit and lost years with his children, grandchildren and friends -- the most egregious and horrible miscarriage of justice imaginable.  Will there ever be an absolute answer in this case?  I'm afraid there may not be.

If you've watched The Staircase, drop me a comment and let me know your thoughts on the series.


  1. Thanks for your review, I really enjoyed it. I believe that the police investigation, the prosecutions forensic "expert" and the doctor who did the autopsy for the prosecution - all of it was so rife with error and incompetence that the judge should have thrown the case against Michael out. However, though I believe he did not commit murder, I don't believe his wife knew all along that he was having sexual relations with men. I believe the marriage was probably in trouble well before her death.

    1. You bring up a good point, Paul. Kathleen could have died accidentally and yet not known about Michael's private life. They aren't mutually exclusive, as the prosecution was pushing.

      There were a lot of errors. It seems as though the PD/investigators believed Michael was responsible from the start and went to work to interpret the evidence that way, rather than testing and taking the evidence and interpreting what it told with no preconceived notions.

      The medical examiner really rubbed me the wrong way. She seemed exasperated and disgusted with any question Peterson's attorney asked. She rolled her eyes, sighed heavily, looked at the jury as though she considered him an idiot. It was really unprofessional. I agree with the defense that a medical examiner in Texas (where Elizabeth Ratliff was buried) should have been the one to autopsy Ratliff's body. Not this same examiner, who was so clearly biased against the defense.

      The judge seemed like a good person. I appreciated that he mentioned toward the end of the series that there would have been reasonable doubt in his mind. I agree. There was definitely enough reasonable doubt.

      Thanks so much for posting!