The Staircase ( also known as Death on the Staircase) is a 2004 French-produced, English-language documentary television miniseries by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade about the trial of Michael Peterson, convicted of murdering his wife, Kathleen Peterson.
In December, 2001, crime novelist Michael Peterson called emergency services to report that his wife Kathleen had fallen down a set of stairs in their Forest Hills mansion and died. The authorities disbelieved Peterson’s story that Kathleen had fallen while drunk and concluded instead that he had bludgeoned her to death, most likely with a fireplace tool called a blow poke (a gift from Kathleen’s sister, which she claimed was missing from the house). Peterson was soon charged with murder. The documentary series detailed the ensuing case from the point of view of Peterson and his legal-defense team, led by attorney David Rudolf.
During the trial, it was revealed that while the Petersons were living in Germany, his best friend’s widow—the mother of his future adopted daughters—had died from an intra-cerebral hemorrhage, followed by the body falling down stairs after collapsing, which resulted in head injuries similar to those sustained by Peterson’s second wife. An investigation by German police and U.S. military authorities concluded that the death was accidental (a subsequent exhumation and autopsy refuted the claim of accidental death). The prosecution introduced this death into the trial as an incident that may given Peterson the idea of how to fake the true cause of Kathleen’s death. During the trial, Peterson’s two adopted daughters supported their father’s version of the death, while Kathleen’s daughter from a first marriage, as well as Kathleen’s two sisters, soon grew suspicious, and split from the family.
The prosecution argued that Kathleen discovered Michael’s bisexuality and pursuit of sexual intrigue with men, leading to an argument that ended in Michael bludgeoning his wife to death.
Peterson claimed his wife did not know about his sexuality but that she would have been fine with it. He claimed to have been outside, by the pool, when Kathleen fell down the stairs and injured herself. A defense team re-creation claimed that Peterson could not hear his wife’s cries for help from such a distance.
The jury ultimately convicted Peterson, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
In 2012 Peterson was granted a new trial because the key witness for the prosecution was found to have misled the jury by faking evidence and deliberately withholding exculpatory evidence.
Starring: (Documentary – Actual characters)
Creators: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
I accidentally fell down this rabbit hole yesterday afternoon, and spent the next thirteen hours binge-watching this documentary non-stop. This morning, when I got up, I sat down here to post my review and discovered a few new things.
First of all, there are TWO versions of “The Staircase”. There is this 2004 documentary, with the three additional episodes following his retrial, that you can see on Netflix. Real people, real events, real time. Then there is the 2022 ‘docudrama’ that just dropped on HBO Max that stars Colin Firth as Michael Peterson. I haven’t seen that one yet, and I am not sure that I ever will.
Michael Peterson’s wife was found dead at the bottom of a stairwell in their Forrest Hills mansion in Durham, North Carolina on December 9, 2001. There was blood everywhere, and the cops were suspicious that this might be more than just a simple ‘fall’ down the stairs, based on the amount of blood and the number of lacerations on Kathleen Peterson’s head. The cops immediately latched on to the idea that Michael Peterson had been living a ‘secret life’ involving his bisexuality that he had supposedly hidden from friends and family, and that Kathleen had found out about it and Michael killed her. We later find out that there had been a similar death involving a a female friend in Germany seventeen years later.
The media circus over the Michael Peterson murder story had been the main staple of Court TV in the early 2000s. I didn’t follow the case all that close at the time, but I do remember the ‘reports’ of the trial that were being broadcast at the time that clearly indicated that Michael Peterson was guilty, based on the reporting coming out of the trial itself.
This is an interesting documentary in that the film crew was given extraordinary access to both the defense AND prosecution strategies. They had unfettered access to film all the events, interview all of the witnesses, and were the only cameras allowed to film all of the court proceedings, including the trial itself. What we see in this documentary is NOT the story we were being told on Court TV by the likes of Nancy Grace et al. Most of the shit — and I mean SHIT — that was being reported out by the media was false. They misrepresented evidence and testimony in order to make the trial more sensational for its viewers — and this documentary exposes this deception over and over again.
Oh, and then there is the prosecution in this case, along with a judge that appeared to be in the pocket of the District Attorney.
I’m not going to spoil this story for you by telling you that Michael Peterson got convicted, and served over eight years before being granted a new trial based on the lies of the State’s sole expert witness. Nor I am going to spoil the story by telling you that Peterson eventually takes a plea bargain for time served in order to avoid the hassle and expense of a new trial. Those are public facts you already had before going into this story.
You WILL walk away from this being mad at the system.