‘The Staircase’ updates true-crime mystery
Man’s conviction in wife’s death still divides family
The bad news is you have jury duty. The good news is the summons comes from Netflix, so you’ll be sequestered to the couch, where you can watch Michael Peterson try to prove his innocence over 16 years in “The Staircase” (streaming now).
The novelist insists that on Dec. 9, 2001, he found his wife, Kathleen, at the bottom of their stairs after she took a fatal fall. But the police in Durham, North Carolina, were suspicious about the amount of blood that covered the walls and ceiling of the couple’s Forest Hills mansion. They charged Peterson with murdering Kathleen, arguing that her death was not accidental but assault. He was convicted in 2003, but that’s not where his judicial battle ended.
Netflix asks a simple question in “The Staircase”: “Did he do it?”
The evidence is complex and lends itself to many interpretations. Blood placement, lacerations on the back of Kathleen Peterson’s head and other findings divided trial experts on her cause of death. The story has been the subject of many programs: Investigation Discovery aired a threepart look at the case in April; My Favorite Murder podcast hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark discussed why they believe in Peterson’s guilt on their 100th episode.
Even portions of Netflix’s “Staircase” already have aired. The first episodes aired in 2004, and director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade released a follow-up documentary with new developments in 2013. The last three episodes on Netflix are new. It’s easy to fly through all 13 episodes, which run about 45 minutes to an hour. But those more familiar with the case can skip ahead.
Though so many hours may sound overwhelming even for the most committed binger, the constant volleying between Peterson’s advocates and his opponents is captivating. Here’s everything you need to know about why the mystery is so intriguing:
Warning: We are encroaching on spoiler alert territory.
Who is Michael Peterson?
Peterson, now 74, is a Tennessee native and graduate of Duke University. In addition to writing a number of books, including “A Time of War,” the former Marine was a columnist for The HeraldSun in Durham. He could be critical of the police, which some have suggested may be a motive for law enforcement to conspire against him.
Though the defense seeks to drive home that he and Kathleen were an ideal couple, a crack in that picture comes early in the series. Peterson, it turns out, had solicited a male prostitute for sex, a fact presented to the jury during the trial. (He identifies as bisexual.) The former escort testified.
Prosecutors theorized that Kathleen could have confronted her husband about this scheduled meeting or his collection of gay porn, which led to an argument that ended with a deadly beating. A fight would have explained the injuries recorded during Kathleen’s autopsy, the state said.
What about Peterson’s past?
Darkening the cloud of suspicion around Peterson is that Kathleen isn’t the only person in his life who met her death at the bottom of a staircase.
While living in Germany with his first wife, Patty, the couple befriended a woman named Elizabeth Ratliff. In 1985, Ratliff, who suffered from headaches, was discovered at the bottom of her stairs after spending the evening with Peterson and his spouse. The cause of death was initially declared a brain hemorrhage, but Ratliff’s body was exhumed for further examination in light of Kathleen’s similar death. It was decided that she was bludgeoned to death.
What about the rest of the family?
Kathleen’s survivors are split as to whether her death was intentional or accidental, bringing additional drama to the series.
Ratliff ’s two daughters, Margaret Blakemore and Martha Ratliff, adopted by Peterson and his first wife after Ratliff ’s death, strongly believe Peterson is innocent. So do Peterson’s sons from his first marriage, Clayton and Todd.
Kathleen’s daughter, Caitlin Atwater, who had supported her stepfather, changed her mind after viewing her mother’s autopsy report. Kathleen’s sister, Candace Zamperini, forcefully believes Peterson is a killer.
What will you decide? Watch “The Staircase” to find out.
The Peterson family is sharply divided over whether Kathleen Peterson’s death was an accident or murder at the hands of her husband.
Michael Peterson says he found his wife dead at the bottom of the stairs.