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|
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|
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|
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.