The Staircase – The case for and against Michael Peterson's guilt

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Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

The true crime mystery of The Staircase is being revisited thanks to a gripping new drama airing on Sky and HBO.

With an all-star cast including Colin Firth, Toni Collette, Sophie Turner and Dane DeHaan, the series aims to delve into the family dynamic and what led up to that fateful day.

However, for aficionados of true crime documentaries, most are already well-versed in the intricacies of the case, thanks in large part to a Netflix documentary series which followed the case from top-to-tail.

But more than 20 years later, the case of Kathleen Peterson and her bloody death at the bottom of the family staircase confounds armchair detectives, true crime viewers, and even the US courts alike.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Did Michael Peterson kill his wife? Is he innocent? Did an owl somehow get involved?! (It's a real theory, we'll get there).

Here's everything you need to know about the case, as well as the arguments for and against Michael Peterson’s guilt.

What happened to Kathleen Peterson?

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

On December 9, 2001, crime novelist Michael Peterson made a frantic phone call to 911, saying his wife Kathleen had fallen down the stairs and wasn't conscious.

Demanding an ambulance get to their house in Durham, North Carolina, immediately, tragically Kathleen was considered dead by the time they had made it to the scene.

Kathleen was found largely sprawled out in the hallway, with her head and torso resting on the bottom stairs and against the wall inside the stairwell. Immediately, police sealed the house off as a crime scene.

Due to the sheer amount of blood at the crime scene, and the fact it appeared the blood had already begun to dry by the time the ambulance and police had arrived, Michael was arrested for the murder of Kathleen. Investigators believed he had staged the crime to make it look like an accident.

To this day, Michael has always maintained his innocence. The case quickly caught the eye of French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de LeStrade, who began following the investigation as a potential follow-up to his Oscar-winning film, Death On a Sunday Morning.

In an interview with Metro, LeStrade explained he wanted to see the treatment of a white, middle class suspect who could afford a legal team in comparison to Death On a Sunday Morning, where the suspect was working class and Black.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

He was eventually convicted of first-degree murder and spent eight years in jail for the crime. However, he was later released into house arrest pending a retrial in 2011, after it was discovered a key witness from the North Carolina State Bureau was unreliable and had given misleading information during the trial.

In 2017, rather than return to prison, Michael agreed to the often contested and controversial Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter – a mandate in the US penal system which allows someone to plead guilty while maintaining their innocence. The Alford plea often results in a sentence being reduced to time served, and allows the state to consider the case closed. After Michael's charge was reduced, his sentence was also reduced to time already served and he was released from custody.

Why is Michael Peterson thought to be guilty?

Suspicion immediately fell on Michael as there was no sign of a break-in, and he was the only other person in the house at the time. Michael claims they had been drinking in the garden, and Kathleen went inside, and he found her at the bottom of the stairs a short time afterwards.

Plus the decision for him to take the Alford plea after 17 years was also met with some suspicion, considering he had spent so long maintaining his innocence and insisting Kathleen's death was an accident.

During the investigation, Michael was outed as bisexual, and prosecutors submitted that the Petersons' marriage was not happy because Kathleen had discovered Michael's trysts with men while they were married. However, Michael's defence submitted that Kathleen knew about his sexuality, but had agreed to keep it private from their family and friends in order to maintain their otherwise satisfying marriage.

An autopsy report also determined there were up to seven severe lacerations to Kathleen’s head inconsistent with falling down the stairs, and she would have died about 90 minutes to two hours after sustaining the injuries from blood loss. These findings didn't match up with the window in which Michael had claimed she had been left alone in the house.

As well as this, another suspicious death with similar circumstances connected to Michael was soon uncovered. In 1985, family friend Elizabeth Ratliff was found dead at the bottom of her staircase having suffered what was deemed an "intra-cerebral haemorrhage".

Elizabeth had been complaining of severe headaches in the weeks before her death, and it was believed she suffered the haemorrhage while on the staircase, causing her to fall. Peterson was the last known person to see her alive, having spent the evening having dinner at her house.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Her body, buried in Texas, was exhumed in 2003 for a further autopsy in light of Kathleen's death, and the similar injuries Elizabeth sustained meant her cause of death was changed to homicide following that second autopsy.

Prosecutors didn't charge Michael for Elizabeth Ratliff's death, but used what happened to her as admissible in court, with her nanny testifying there was a large amount of blood at the scene and a second witness telling the court they cleaned blood stains off the walls.

The trial took place in 2003 and was one of the longest in North Carolina's history. Michael was found guilty of murder by a jury on October 10, 2003. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The prosecution had argued that Michael had hit Kathleen over the head with a fire poker, after she had confronted him about having an affair with a man in their home. They had also noted she had a $1.5million life insurance policy in her name.

Kathleen's daughter, Caitlin Atwater Clark, later filed a wrongful death claim against Michael Peterson. They eventually settled out of court for $25million in 2007. In 2017, Caitlin filed a new claim (according to ABCNews) alleging he had not paid her any of the cash.

She still maintains Michael was involved in her mother's death, as do Kathleen's sisters.

Why is Michael Peterson thought to be innocent?

The defence for Michael Peterson comes twofold. First, the defence submitted that the injuries were inconsistent with what was argued by the prosecution, and second, there has since been proven corruption by those involved in securing his initial conviction (albeit in other cases).

Kathleen Peterson was found to have lacerations to her head, which was later argued was evidence of Michael attacking her head. However, the defence disputed this, arguing that there was no skull fracture or brain damage/swelling, and thus inconsistent with blunt force trauma.

All five of the couple's children, as well as family and friends, contested to the Petersons having a happy and calm suburban marriage. It was both Kathleen and Michael’s second union, and while they had been together since 1989, they had their legal wedding in 1997.

When Elizabeth Ratliff died, Michael raised her children, Margaret and Martha, as his own with first wife Patricia. Their father, George, had passed before Elizabeth's death. After they split, the girls remained with Michael, with the couple's sons Todd and Clayton.

Investigation analyst Duane Deaver, who worked on the case, was fired from his position at the North Carolina Stage Bureau of Investigation in 2011, after an independent review against him determined he had misreported test results, withheld results or overstated the strength of blood evidence on more than 30 cases. It could have potentially included the Peterson case.

Photo credit: HBO
Photo credit: HBO

This has since led people to believe in the now infamous 'owl theory' – that an owl had got into the house, was startled by Kathleen and attacked her, causing her to lose her footing and fall down the stairs. It then flew out, leaving no sign of it being there.

Another pause for thought comes in the idea of Michael accepting the documentary to be filmed itself. Some see it as a sign of his over-confidence, while others see The Staircase documentary as proof he had nothing to hide.

During a 2018 interview with Metro, LeStrade said Peterson was willing to open the entire case to the filmmakers, even if it made him look guilty, because he was so sure it would prove his innocence.

"I told him, 'I don't know – but if something in the course of the shooting, if something happens and new physical evidence or something showed me maybe you are involved in the death of Kathleen, I will consider you as someone who killed his wife, and it will be in the film,'" LeStrade said.

"From the beginning, until the end, I really tried to keep indifferent in my stance," he added. "You can't become a friend."

Initially, the filmmakers were granted entry to every part of the case, including case files, the defence and the prosecution's work, but the prosecution later removed their access.

Before Kathleen's death, Michael spent a period of time in the running for Mayor of Durham, and was openly critical of the police department, in particular Durham County District Attorney James Hardin Jr. Hardin would later be the person prosecuting him in this case alongside his soon-to-be DA successor, Mike Nifong.

In 2006, Nifong was put into the spotlight after it emerged he had withheld DNA test evidence in the 'Duke lacrosse case', where three white members of the university team were charged with rape, sexual assault and kidnapping of a Black woman they had hired to work as a stripper at a party.

The rape charges were dropped in December 2006 after the woman changed her testimony, and the remaining charges were dropped by the then-North Carolina Attorney General in April 2007.

However, Nifong came further under fire for his conduct on the case. This included making public a series of accusations which later turned out to be untrue, the withholding of DNA test evidence, and not interviewing the alleged victim more than six months after the initial investigation.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Nifong then became the first ever sitting North Carolina district attorney to be disbarred in June 2007, after he was found guilty of 27 of 32 charges made against him regarding his conduct in the case "which involved dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation" and was "prejudicial to the administration of justice".

His behaviour in that case has since placed suspicion on his previous convictions, and what could have been done to secure them. The ensuing investigation resulted in at least one exoneration of a man named Darryl Howard, who had spent 20 years in jail for the murder of a woman and her daughter that he didn't commit. DNA evidence proving as such was reportedly known by Nifong, but not turned over to the defence (according to the Washington Post).

Where is Michael Peterson now?

Since his release, Michael Peterson has released two books on his experience with the case. Both books have had their proceeds donated to charity.

Last noted in 2018, he was still living in Durham, now in a two-bedroom condo not far from the house he shared with Kathleen.

The Staircase airs on Thursdays on HBO in the US, and on Sky and NOW in the UK.

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