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.”

The de­fense

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.”

The pros­e­cu­tion

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.

Se­crets emerge

“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.”

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