‘I was literally shocked’: the true story behind new TV drama The Staircase

A woman lies dying in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase. Her husband, a novelist, calls 911. It is 2.40am.

“My wife had an accident,” says a frantic Michael Peterson. “She’s still breathing!”

The operator asks: “What kind of accident?”

Peterson replies: “She fell down the stairs. She’s still breathing! Please come!”

This the transcript of a 911 call on 9 December 2001. It was too late to save Kathleen Peterson. She died at the couple’s mansion in Durham, North Carolina. But Michael Peterson was given little time to mourn.

Investigators found walls heavily spattered with blood and believed that Kathleen’s severe injuries were difficult to reconcile with a fall. Days later Peterson, then 58, was charged with first-degree murder of his 48-year-old wife.

He was convicted and spent nearly eight years in prison, only for his life sentence to be overturned amid questions about the reliability of a key witness. Now the couple’s shocking and elusive story is told in The Staircase, a new drama series starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette.

Perhaps the most eager viewer will be Larry Pollard, who was the Petersons’ nextdoor neighbour and used to play in the house as a child. He never believed that Michael Peterson was guilty of killing his wife, a telecoms company executive.

“I never saw one bit of trouble,” says Pollard, 74, from his neighbouring home on Cedar Street. “In fact, I thought they were a very colourful couple. She was a very sociable lady and very well-liked in the neighbourhood.

“Michael was a bon vivant. People liked him because he’s humorous. He’s not very tall but he’s he’s quick-witted. He was fun to be around.”

Peterson is a Vietnam war veteran whose novels The Immortal Dragon, A Time of War and A Bitter Peace are centred on the conflict. He had also been an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Durham.

The Petersons visited the Pollards at their home about a month before the tragedy. Pollard recalls: “They walked away from our yard hand in hand. I didn’t see any kind of angst against each other. I hadn’t heard anything about them being that way. They were well-liked. They were entertaining people. They were somewhat the darlings of the social set at that time.”

Pollard, a former lawyer and special prosecutor, finds the timing of the alleged murder implausible because, he says, Peterson’s children were about to visit and his home had just been illuminated with lavish Christmas decorations.

“When all of the authorities got there that night they came in, it was two o’clock in the morning and everybody’s looking down at the body. Everybody is assuming that she has been murdered. There’s blood all over the walls. ‘Oh, gosh, there’s a pool of blood, she had to have been beaten to death.’

“They weren’t taking in any other facts, anything that might have been different. Everyone was just assuming that this was probably a domestic quarrel where he got mad and beat her to death. At that time, domestic violence was a very serious topic. This quickly became a domestic violence case.

“I, on the other hand, was not so sure. It just seemed out of character, but even more than that, why was this house all lit up from one end to the other, top to bottom and floodlights everywhere? If you’re going to beat your wife to death, you would think you don’t want people watching.”

Peterson went on trial in 2003. His defence argued that the couple were drinking by their swimming pool late into the night and an intoxicated Kathleen went inside by herself and fell down the stairs.

Caitlin Atwater, Clayton Peterson, Kathleen Peterson, Michael Peterson, Todd Peterson, Martha Ratliff and Margaret (Ratliff) Blakemore.
Caitlin Atwater, Clayton Peterson, Kathleen Peterson, Michael Peterson, Todd Peterson, Martha Ratliff and Margaret (Ratliff) Blakemore. Photograph: Netflix

The prosecution did not describe a murder weapon or offer a clear motive but grilled Peterson about the death of a family friend whose body was also found at the bottom of a staircase years earlier in Germany. It also targeted his bisexuality, suggesting that Kathleen had discovered he was leading a secret life and cheating on her.

Defence lawyer David Rudolf recalls: “We had heard rumours that the police were looking for some male lover at a gym or something like that so we asked him and he told us that he was bisexual and had instances of sex with various men. Not that it was an every week thing but that had happened.

“For me, it was a non-issue like, OK, so if a husband has an affair with a woman, does that make him a murderer? I didn’t see any distinction to be drawn between having that with a woman or having it with a man.

“On the other hand, particularly for [prosecutor] Freda Black, it was a real moral issue that she took a lot of importance from. A lot of the people on the jury were religious and I think probably for them it was an important factor, not terribly relevant, but necessarily important in the sense that it it cast Michael in a negative light.”

Peterson was found guilty of beating his wife to death and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The verdict hit Rudolf hard. He says: “I’ll never forget it. It was absolutely soul-crushing. It was beyond belief that jury came back guilty.

“As I’ve said many times, it made me question whether I had been part of the same trial that everybody else had been part of. Michael put on a very brave face in public but I am told that, when he got back in in the holding area, he broke down. He just didn’t want to show it in front of his kids.”

But the verdict fell apart after Duane Deaver, a blood spatter analyst of the state bureau of investigation, was fired in 2011 following an independent audit that found problems in 34 of his cases. Rudolf cited statements from jurors that they relied on Deaver’s discredited testimony, and the original trial judge, Orlando Hudson, ordered a new trial.

David Rudolf and Michael Peterson
David Rudolf and Michael Peterson. Photograph: WhatsUp/Netflix

Peterson was released from prison but Rudolf, who was now working pro bono, could see what a toll it had taken on him. “I was literally shocked. He had aged 20 years or more in those in those eight years. But he always maintained his sarcastic sense of humour.

“I remember the first time I went to visit him. I felt awful and I said something like, ‘Michael, you know, I probably feel as bad about this as you do.’ He said, ‘David, you’re going home in your BMW tonight and I’m going to be here. So you don’t feel as bad as I do.’ That sums up how Michael dealt with it through gallows humour as he did throughout the trial.”

Hudson declined to drop the charges, however, so in 2017 Peterson agreed to a plea deal that enabled him to maintain his innocence even as he acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him of manslaughter in his wife’s death.

The judge sentenced Peterson to 64 to 86 months in prison and gave him credit for the 89 months he had already spent behind bars, allowing him to walk out of court a free man.

Rudolf, who earlier this year published a book, American Injustice, says: “It was as though a huge boulder had been lifted off my shoulders. It was redemption. It was joy. That would have been probably the happiest, most satisfying day in court for me ever. I really experienced both extremes in this particular case.”

Peterson, however, felt “bitterness” over what had been done to him, the lawyer adds, and is now living in an apartment in Durham and spending time with is family.

The Staircase explores the lives of the Petersons’ children: Michael’s two sons, Todd and Clayton, with his first wife, their two adopted daughters, Margaret and Martha, and Kathleen’s daughter, Caitlin.

Colin Firth.
Colin Firth. Photograph: AP

The extraordinary twists and turns of the trial were filmed for a documentary series, also called The Staircase, that became a big “true crime” hit before a sequel series landed on Netflix. The documentary crew is played by actors in the new drama series, with Vincent Vermignon playing the director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.

Despite all the attention, the riddle of Kathleen’s death remains unsolved, inviting new theories. Pollard, the neighbour and former lawyer, believes that her wounds were the result of an owl attack.

The theory holds that Kathleen was putting up Christmas decorations that an owl could have mistaken for prey. It points to hair pulled out by the roots in Kathleen’s hands and bloody twigs and two feather fragments in her hair.

Pollard says: “Owls’ talons are needle sharp. They go straight through the hair until they hit the flesh covering the skull. That is what I determined to be the wounds. If that is the cause of her death, then Michael Peterson is automatically an innocent man. They’ve gone through a trial simply because they didn’t know what it was.

“The grand jury returned a bill of indictment but everybody was chasing rabbits, as far as I’m concerned. They were sitting out there and they’re saying, ‘Oh, he beat her death. Oh, he’s got a gay lover’, all this, that and the other. There was a lot of gossip. This whole episode was a colossal rush to judgment.”

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