‘The Stair­case’ up­dates true-crime mys­tery

Man’s con­vic­tion in wife’s death still di­vides fam­ily

USA TODAY International Edition - - LIFE - Erin Jensen

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.

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