The long, sensational murder trial behind a new Netflix series
In the early morning hours of Dec. 9, 2001, Michael Peterson called 911 in a panic. “My wife had an accident,” he said.
“What kind of accident?” the dispatcher asked.
“She fell down the stairs,” Peterson, a novelist and local newspaper columnist, replied.
Peterson spoke frantically as he told the dispatcher that his wife, Kathleen — who lay in a pool of blood at the bottom of a back staircase in the couple’s 9,000-squarefoot Durham, North Carolina, mansion — was breathing, but unconscious. He struggled to say how many stairs (“15, 20, I don’t know!”) she had fallen down. “Please,” Peterson pleaded. “Get somebody here right away.”
On Dec. 20, Peterson was charged with murdering his wife, a telecommunications executive with prominent ties to the Durham community. The district attorney’s office would argue that Kathleen Peterson’s injuries, which included multiple head lacerations, were inconsistent with a fall down the stairs. Rather, prosecutors alleged, Peterson had beat her to death.
In October 2003, after a threemonth trial, a jury convicted Peterson of first-degree murder and he was sentenced to life in prison. But that was only the beginning of a confounding, often sensational legal saga. Over the past decade and a half, the Peterson case has been the subject of numerous documentaries, a BBC radio podcast and was even spoofed in an NBC comedy.
Netflix, which has seen success in recent years with true-crime series including “Making a Murderer” and “The Keepers,” just released an updated, 13-episode version of the project that arguably started it all: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning documentary “The Staircase.” The series expands Lestrade’s original work, which aired as a 2004 French television miniseries and hit U.S. television the following year.
From bizarre theories about how Kathleen Peterson died to the plea deal that ultimately set Michael Peterson free from prison, here is everything you need to know about the events at the center of “The Staircase.”
In the opening episode of “The Staircase,” Peterson recalls a nice evening spent with his wife. He says they watched “American Sweethearts,” which they had rented from Blockbuster Video. They had been drinking in celebration of one of his novels being optioned for a movie. They spent the night talking, as they often did, and eventually went outside to lounge by their pool.
According to Peterson, Kathleen had a conference call in the morning, and went into the house well before he did. He later found her at the foot of the stairs. His legal team, led by defense attorney David Rudolf, alleged that she had mixed prescription Valium with alcohol and fell after she “tried to walk up a narrow, poorly lit stairway in flip flops.”
Prosecutors painted a very different picture. They argued that Peterson brutally beat his wife with a fireplace poker, and that her head wounds were caused by blunt-force trauma. They alleged that Peterson was in debt, and zeroed in on a $1.4 million life insurance policy as a motive.
A blended family
The Petersons, who had each been married before, had five children between them. Michael had two biological sons, Todd and Clayton, and two adopted daughters — Margaret and Martha Ratliff. Kathleen had a biological daughter, Caitlin Atwater. Michael’s children supported him throughout the trial.
Caitlin initially supported Michael, even serving as the family spokes-
woman after he was charged. But by the end of the trial, Atwater had publicly broken with her stepfather. “After the closing arguments, when all was said and done, I felt confident that I knew what happened. I knew what happened to my mom,” she told Indy Week last year.
“From what we've found, every aspect of Mike Peterson's life is a lie,” Jim Hardin, the district attorney who prosecuted Peterson, says in the second episode. Discrepancies about Peterson's past — and details about his personal life — emerged during the trial.
The prosecution focused on photos and emails found on Michael Peterson's computer that suggested he had engaged in multiple extramarital affairs with men. The state contended that the night Kathleen Peterson died she had discovered this information about her husband, but Michael maintained that she knew that he was bisexual and was aware that he had sex with other people.
Prosecutors also highlighted the fact that Peterson, who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Durham in 1999, had flubbed some details of his military service — particularly that he had been injured in combat when, in fact, he actually suffered injuries in a car accident in Japan.
An eerily similar case
As prosecutors geared up for the trial, it came out that the mother of Michael Peterson's adopted daughters, Elizabeth Ratliff, had also been found dead at the foot of a staircase some two decades prior. Ratliff had lived near Peterson and his first wife, Patty, on a military base in Germany. At the time, her death was said to have been the result of a brain hemorrhage. But given the similarities, prosecutors requested that her body be exhumed and examined by the North Carolina medical examiner, who ruled that Ratliff's death was the result of a homicide.
The infamous owl theory
For years, Michael Peterson and his supporters fought his conviction. Durham businessman and lawyer Larry Pollard asserted that an owl had attacked Kathleen Peterson, causing the lacerations that led to her death.
The plea deal
Following years of appeals, Michael Peterson was granted a retrial and released from prison in 2011 after a judge ruled that a key prosecution witness had lied on the stand. His conviction was overturned, and a new trial date was set for May 2017.
But in February of last year, Peterson officially became a free man after entering an Alford plea. Under the terms of the plea, as explained by the Raleigh News & Observer, Peterson — who continued to maintain his innocence — “acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him of voluntary manslaughter.” He was not required to spend any additional time in prison since he was given credit for the eight years he had already served behind bars.
Both of Kathleen Peterson's sisters spoke in court following the plea deal. “The words ‘Alford plea' are meaningless. Alford smalford. It means nothing. Guilt,” Candace Zamperini said during her victim impact statement. “You brutally took the life of a woman that provided for you, guided your children, loved your children. She loved you.”
“The Staircase” is streaming now on Netflix.
Michael Peterson in Netflix’s “The Staircase.”