This is a long one, so strap in and get ready. The series titled ‘The Staircase’ debuted on Netflix back in 2018, and once I watched it, I was mystified, but also very confused. I didn’t know what to think and also didn’t know how I felt about the circumstances surrounding this case. The series is a 13 part documentary intricately detailing the death of Kathleen Peterson, and the trial of her husband Michael. I’m not gonna break this down into 13 parts because well… I’m lazy, but I’m gonna ask you what I asked myself… Did Michael kill his wife, or was this a tragic accident?
What the documentary doesn’t do is lay out who Michael Peterson was before December 9th, 2001. Michael Iver Peterson was born on October 23rd, 1943 near Nashville, Tennessee to Eugen and Eleanor Peterson. He attended Duke University and graduated with a bachelor’s in political science. While at Duke, Mike was president of Sigma Nu fraternity and was editor of The Chronicle, the daily student newspaper, from 1964–1965. He also attended classes at the law school of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduating, Michael took a civilian job with the U.S. Department of Defense, where he was assigned to research arguments supporting increased military involvement in Vietnam. That year he also married Patricia Sue, who taught at an elementary school on the Rhein-Main Air Base in Gräfenhausen, West Germany. They had two children, Clayton and Todd. In 1968, Michael enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and served in the Vietnam War. In 1971, he received an honorable discharge with the rank of captain after a car accident left him with a permanent disability. Years later, during a mayoral campaign, Peterson claimed he had won a Silver Star, a Bronze Star with Valor, and two Purple Hearts. He had all the medals, but said he did not have the documentation for them. Mike claimed he had received one Purple Heart after being hit by shrapnel when another soldier stepped on a landmine, and the other when he was shot. He later admitted his war injury was not the result of the shrapnel wound in Vietnam, but was the result of a car accident in Japan, where he was stationed after the war as a military policeman. The Raleigh, North Carolina News & Observer said records did not contain any mention of the two Purple Hearts that Peterson said he had received. However, military files verified that he received a Silver Star and the Bronze Star Medal with Valor. Michael and his first wife Patricia lived in Germany for some time. There they befriended Elizabeth and George Ratliff and their two children, Margaret and Martha. After George’s death in 1983, the Peterson and Ratliff families became very close. When Elizabeth Ratliff died in 1985, Michael became the guardian of her two children. (Remember Michael’s time in Germany and his relationship with the Ratliff family, this all will come back and be important.) After Michael and Patricia divorced in 1987, Clayton and Todd lived with Patricia, and Margaret and Martha stayed with Michael, who then moved to Durham, North Carolina. Clayton and Todd later also joined their father. Peterson wrote three novels based “around his experiences during the Vietnamese conflict”—The Immortal Dragon, A Time of War, and A Bitter Peace. He co-wrote the biographical Charlie Two Shoes and the Marines of Love Company with journalist David Perlmutt, and co-wrote Operation Broken Reed with Lt. Col. Arthur L. Boyd. Mike also worked as a newspaper columnist for the Durham Herald-Sun, where his columns became known for their criticism of police and of Durham County District Attorney James Hardin Jr. Hardin was the prosecutor of Peterson for the murder of his second wife, Kathleen, and Michael later believes that Hardin secretly might have pushed harder for a conviction based on those criticisms in his columns. In 1989, Michael moved in with Kathleen Atwater, a successful Nortel business executive. They married in 1997, and Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin joined the extended family that now consisted of Clayton, Todd, Martha, and Margaret.
This case takes place on the night of December 9th, 2001 in Durham, North Carolina at the Peterson family mansion. Within the first two minutes of the first episode of ‘The Staircase’, the real Michael Peterson invites a camera crew into his home and brings them along with him into a small living room. Michael Peterson informs us that he went to Blockbuster that night (December 9th) and rented ‘America’s Sweethearts’. When he got back home, he and his wife put on the movie and around 11 p.m is when the movie ended. He remembered that they left their dinner plates on the coffee table, but took their wine glasses into the kitchen. He distinctly remembers that they would go back in the morning to clean the dishes up. He takes us on his route from the living room into the kitchen that is attached to another much larger room with a fireplace. He starts to go off on a tangent- that the weather that night was around 50 or 60 degrees and that they had two bottles of wine over the course of the evening. Michael notes that he and his wife talked a lot on most nights- usually between 3 or 4 hours, almost always having great conversation. He unlocks the door to the outside, and we find ourselves on the back patio. He points down to the pool and says that on nights when it was nice, the couple would walk down to the pool and lay out underneath the stars, continuing casual conversation with each other. We walk down to the pool area that is surrounded by a white lattice fence and motions to the patio chairs. He doesn’t remember how the chairs were positioned exactly on the night when all this transpired, but notes that he and his wife definitely sat by the pool as they conversed and drank more wine. At some point during their conversation, Kathleen got up and told her husband that she was going to go back inside since she needed to get some sleep because she had a conference call in the morning. Michael says that he’d see her in the morning as he stayed out back by the pool and watched her head back inside. Michael takes us on the path in which his wife had taken on the night of December 9th. He says it two or three times that the last time he saw his wife alive was when she was walking back inside. It’s clear that he wants us to know that he was not with her for a period of time.
Immediately the documentary shifts to footage of the police entering the Peterson home while a recording of the 911 call is played. Michael Peterson called police and informed the operator that his wife had been in some sort of accident and was barely breathing. When asked what kind of accident, Michael tells them that Kathleen had fallen down the stairs. When asked if she was conscious, he told them that she wasn’t. The operator asked Michael how many stairs did she fall down and at first he couldn’t answer, his reply was “What? Huh?” Then he shouts at the operator that this happened on the back stairs, but the operator asked again how many stairs she had fallen. A few seconds go by as Michael’s breathing is heard over the phone- it’s ragged and heavy and the operator tells him to calm down. Michael informs the 911 operator that “15, 20.. I don’t know. Please! Get somebody here right away!” The operator tells Michael that the ambulance has already been dispatched and was on the way while she was asking him those questions. Michael says that he lives in Forest Hills as he continues to say “please, please!”
Todd Peterson enters the scene and says that it was a shock for him as he pulled into the driveway on the night that this all happened and saw sirens and an ambulance. He explains that for him, at first, he thought his dad was the one in trouble and that maybe his father was having a heart attack. He thought this because his father was older than Kathleen. (Michael was ten years older.) When Todd entered the home and saw that his father was okay, he was relieved but very quickly saw his father motioning towards the back staircase. We’re back to the 911 call as the operator tries to ask Michael if his wife is still breathing but all she hears is Michael crying. He’s not responding to her question. Michael vividly remembers opening the door and finding Kathleen at the bottom of the stairs, then remembers dialing 911. He remembers Todd wrapping his arms around him in a tight embrace. Then he remembers how a girl named Heather took his pulse and that “a cop was with me, around me everywhere I went.” Todd says there’s no way in the world that his father could ever possibly hurt Kathleen, but knew right away that the police were suspicious of foul play. Todd says that the family members were cordoned off and not able to interact with each other and that the police were “barking” orders at them. Margaret and Martha explain that when they pulled up to the driveway to their home, yellow tape was everywhere and were unable to approach the home any further at first. “All we wanted to do was go home.” The girls say that when they saw their father he was shaking and nervous, but telling them that he didn’t do it and they had to believe him. The girls reassured him that they believed him, even though they didn’t have any details. The girls say that it felt like two bombs have gone off because although they wanted to take care of their father, they worried about their mother.
Detective Art Holland was the lead police investigator who entered the home and saw Kathleen on the floor at the bottom of the stairs covered in blood. “There was an abundant amount of blood on her, on the floor, on the walls. It wasn’t consistent with somebody falling down the steps.” Jim Hardin, the district attorney, says that because they weren’t there at the time of the incident, they’ve had to piece together what exactly had happened by crime scene photographs and police footage. “The only people who know (what happened) are Mike Peterson and Kathleen Peterson.” He says that the evidence they’ve been able to obtain tells them that she was beaten, recovered and struggled, then was beaten again, this time to death by Michael Peterson. 11 days after making the 911 call, Michael Peterson was charged with first degree murder. His family- both adopted daughters, two biological sons, Kathleen’s biological daughter and Kathleen’s sisters all stood by Michael and claimed that Kathleen’s death was an accident and that authorities jumped to conclusions.
Mike hired David Rudolf, Thomas Maher and Ron Guerette to work on his case. The three defense lawyers got together rather quickly after Michael was charged with Kathleen’s murder. At first, the lawyers thought about a potential theory- that Kathleen was the victim of an intruder due to the lacerations that Kathleen had sustained on her head. However, the defense very quickly realized that the intruder theory wasn’t going to hold much weight because no footprints were found- or weapon, or any other evidence to indict that someone had broken in. They mentioned that all reports detailed Kathleen as a feisty woman and would have fought her attacker, but there is no evidence to prove that she fought back. Ron noted that this case didn’t look like a “crime of rage.”
Ron met with David Perlmutt who co-wrote one of Michael’s books. Ron met with David because David had spoken to both Michael and Kathleen a night or two before Kathleen had died. David Perlmutt told Ron that Kathleen had answered the phone and seemed to be her normal self and was laughing and joking with Michael who was in the kitchen doing chores. Perlmutt said that Michael and Kathleen’s relationship was normally playful and that the playfulness was apparent on that phone call. He noted that he didn’t sense any stress or tension between the Petersons on that phone call, or at any other time. In contrast, the prosecution team looked through autopsy and crime scene photos of Kathleen, which indicated that she suffered extensive blows to the head that didn’t align with her just falling down the stairs. The team informed the camera crew that the medical examiner- Dr Deborah Radisch didn’t think Kathleen’s injuries were from a fall down the stairs either. “This had to occur from multiple inflictions of blunt force trauma.” The prosecution team noted that two calls were made from the Peterson home that night. On the first call, Michael said that Kathleen was still breathing. On the second call made 15 minutes later, Michael said that Kathleen just quit breathing. Then, when the EMT’s arrived shortly thereafter, they noted that Kathleen’s blood was dry and looked like it had been smeared. EMT’s had said that no one needed to wear protective clothing because Kathleen’s blood didn’t transfer once they moved her. The prosecution team theorized that Kathleen had been in the stairwell for a number of hours when police and medics arrived.
Michael Peterson was let go on $850,000 bond. At the time, Michael gave a short interview right outside the courthouse saying that all he wanted to do was go home and be with his kids- and grieve over the loss of his wife. During the year and change of gathering evidence to try and prove Michael Peterson innocence, the defense team learned:
- Dr. Henry Lee, a forensic scientist assisted the defense team and spoke in depth about the blood cast off pattern. They all came to the conclusion that Kathleen died by falling down the stairs and loss of blood. Henry Lee says the lack of blood cast off on the ceiling indicates that Kathleen hadn’t been beaten.
- Henry Lee also examined Kathleen’s clothing she was wearing, and it matched the evidence back at the house. He thinks that she had a horrific and deathly fall down the stairs.
- All the kids tell the defense team that Michael and Kathleen had a very loving, nurturing, and fun relationship. Todd says that his father never showed any signs of aggression and usually solved arguments with others by simply walking away.
- On November 24th, 2002, the defense team brought sound equipment over to Michael’s house to determine what can be heard from the swimming pool when someone falls down the stairs. Michael helped place the equipment in the area where he was sitting. Inside the house, Todd pressed play on a tape recording of someone yelling for help where Kathleen was found. Rudolf was in another room and you can hear the taped recording, but couldn’t hear the recording from where Michael was standing.
A year after her mother’s death, Caitlin Atwater and Kathleen’s two sisters were convinced that Michael was responsible. At this point, I was confused because up until now, I was under the impression that they stood firm in their beliefs that Michael was innocent. Jim Harden explains that everything we know about Michael Peterson has been a lie. Jim says that yes, Michael served in the military and fought bravely, but that he lied about what happened and how he was injured. Jim says that Michael always tried to portray the family as being wholesome and united, but in actuality, Michael was having an affair, and that Kathleen had found out and knew about it. Jim shockingly informs us that Michael is bisexual and was in a relationship with a man from another part of the state. Freda Black, the assistant district attorney, says that they believe Kathleen had found out about the relationship and she found evidence on his computer the night she died. They think that she confronted Michael about the affair which led to a heated argument leading Michael to savagely beat his wife. Bill Peterson had known about his brother’s sexuality for a number of years- ever since they were 13 or 14. He noted that he learned about it from a friend and that their parents also knew all about it. Bill says to the camera that he knew all along that the prosecution was going to find out about it, and then go after Michael for his infidelity. The reason Bill knew this, is because after the second search warrant was conducted, and once they were all able to re-enter the home, Bill and Michael saw that the investigators left behind a pornographic picture (from Michael’s computer, which the investigators took) and to the Peterson brothers it was a clear message that the prosecution knew about Michael’s other life and were about to expose him. Freda Black explains some of the pornographic pictures that were pulled from Michael’s computer. Most of them were of gay military men posing in an illiciet manner or preforming sexual acts. They found out that Michael met a man through a gay website and met up with him and talked to him during a span of time relevant to the time the pictures had been downloaded on Michael’s computer. They insist that if Michael’s marriage was as happy and loving as he’s made it seem, then why does he have such pictures on his computer, and why was he sexually involved with a man? The prosecution team knew or assumed that Michael and his defense team did not want the bisexual allegations or allegations of an affair to surface, especially to the jury- alluding to the fact that it’s damaging. Jim Harden tries his best to bite back a smile. The defense team already had to deal with an uphill battle trying to prove Michael’s innocence, and now it was beginning to look like Michael had some sort of motive. Statements were beginning to come out from an individual(s) claiming to have had sex with Michael on numerous occassions, although Michael denied that such occurrences happened. He did admit to having cheated on Kathleen at least once, and does admit that he’s bisexual- to a degree. Michael says that even though he’s had an extramarital affair(s), that doesn’t mean that his marriage to Kathleen was bad. In fact, he does his best to say that his marriage was near perfect.
And then… the news of how Elizabeth Ratliff had died surfaced and it painted another huge target square on Michael Peterson’s shoulders. On September 23rd, 2002, some of the defense team headed to Germany to get to the bottom of what happened to Elizabeth. They arrived at Grafenhausen and met up with Patricia Sue, Michael’s ex-wife. She took the three men to where she lived, then walked them down the street to where Elizabeth and her children, and along with their nanny Barbara lived. While standing outside of the apartment, she filled in the timeline. On Sunday evening of November 24th, 1985, Patty arrived with her two sons to Elizabeth’s apartment and helped prepare dinner. Michael arrived 30 minutes later because he took time to work out in the gym at the military base. After they all had dinner, Patty took the boys home to get them ready for bed while Michael stayed behind to help take care of the dishes and help Elizabeth with getting her two young daughters into bed. Patty noted that this was all very normal and nothing stood out to her or ever caused her to wonder. Afterwards, Mike headed back to his apartment and got his car and drove back to Elizabeth’s, where she was waiting outside in her own vehicle. The two drove to get repairs done on one of the automobiles and Patty said that Michael was gone for about 30-45 minutes. When asked who was watching Margaret and Martha, Patty said that they were alone for that period of time, but said that Elizabeth probably asked a neighbor to keep an eye on the house while she was gone. The nanny wasn’t available or wasn’t around that night. David and Ron asked Patty if she ever thought that Elizabeth and Michael ever had an affair, and she very quickly replied that the two of them had a platonic relationship and that absolutely nothing like that occurred. David approached the front door of Elizabeth’s old apartment, and when a middle aged lady answered the door, he asked if they could enter and told her the situation and what they were trying to do. The lady was nice enough to invite everyone inside. Once inside the apartment, David and Ron took photographs and measurements of the staircase while Patty told them how and where Elizabeth was found. The nanny had found Elizabeth the morning of the 25th and Patty says that Barbara had quickly ran over and got her and the two women went back to Elizabeth’s apartment. Patty said that Elizabeth suffered from a cerebral hemorrhage and fell down the stairs but that there wasn’t much blood. She also said that the place looked very normal, other than the fact that Elizabeth was dead at the bottom of the stairs. She noted that there was no evidence of a struggle at all. David and Ron also met with another Peterson family friend while they were in Germany who agreed with Patty’s claims and also agreed that Michael and Elizabeth never seemed to have had an affair. David and Ron then headed to Darmstadt, Germany to meet with the district attorney to obtain a copy of Elizabeth’s case file. The information gathered from the case file told David and Ron that Elizabeth’s death was ruled an accident and that the case was closed. However, Barbara remembered that there had been a lot of blood all around the stairway and bottom of the hallway- where Elizabeth was found. Obviously, Patty had claimed that information was untrue. There was also no indication of Barbara’s claims in the police report, however, Barbara remained steadfast in her claims. Barbara even told David and Ron that she remembered having spent weeks cleaning up the blood and tried to remove it from the stairway and hallway. Elizabeth’s body ended up being exhumed to try and get a better idea as to her exact cause of death, and the news of that shocked Michael. On April 14th, 2003 in Bay City, Texas, Elizabeth’s body was exhumed as Ron Guerette oversaw the proceedings. Her body was then brought to Chapel Hill, North Carolina so a medical examiner could do an autopsy. Michael’s defense was upset with the fact that Elizabeth’s body was brought to Chapel Hill for the autopsy because they wanted it to be done right in Texas. They figured that an autopsy done in Texas was better because it would have been done in “neutral ground.” The same medical examiner who conducted Kathleen’s autopsy, conducted Elizabeth’s autopsy. The defense thought that the same person shouldn’t have been able to conduct both autopsies in fear of biases. Elizabeth’s autopsy was done on April 16th, 2003. The medical examiner found evidence that Elizabeth suffered injuries that coincided with an attack (blunt force trauma) and labeled her death as a homicide. On April 30th, 2003, a hearing was held on the admissibility of the Ratliff case. Meaning, that the defense now had to fight for the evidence in Elizabeth’s new autopsy be withheld from the upcoming trial. David noted that if the jury was to hear any evidence about Elizabeth’s supposed homicide, it would then cause prejudices and biases and Michael Peterson wouldn’t get a fair trial. The judge ended up ruling that Elizabeth’s autopsy was admissible. It was another blow to Michael’s defense.
July 1st, 2003 marked the first day of Michael’s trial. The whole family sans Caitlin along with Michael’s whole defense team walked into the courthouse with Michael that day, showing solidarity, unity and support for Michael to reporters and the prosecution. The prosecution gave their opening statements first, detailing to the jury what Kathleen looked like before December 9th, 2001 versus what she looked like on the night of December 9th, 2001. The prosecution tells the jury that they think Kathleen was murdered and that they believe Michael Peterson used a blow poke to inflict the injuries. They think this because Kathleen’s sister had gifted a set of blow pokes to Kathleen, however, on the night of December 9th, the blow poke couldn’t be found. Also, the blow poke was seemingly the only instrument which could cause the lacerations on the back of Kathleen’s head while not causing bruising or swelling on her brain or a head fracture. They theorized that Michael beat Kathleen over the head with the blow poke then disposed of the weapon somehow. When David gave his opening statement for the defense, he noted that blood was only found at the stairwell, and nowhere else, meaning that Michael couldn’t have beat his wife because if he did, he would have left a trail of blood around the house. David says that it’s impossible for Michael to have disposed of a weapon like the blow poke because he just didn’t have the time between making the first phone call to when police and EMTs showed up. David and the defense theorized that after Kathleen drank some alcohol she took a couple valium, she then tried to walk up a flight of dimly lit stairs in flip flops, but slipped and fell and bled to death. This is what the rest of the trial consisted of:
- increasing media attention as details of Peterson’s private life emerged. Hardin and his prosecution team (among them Mike Nifong) attacked Peterson’s credibility, focusing on his alleged misreporting of his military service and what they described as a “gay life” he led and kept secret. The prosecution contended that the Petersons’ marriage was far from happy, suggesting that Kathleen had discovered Michael’s alleged secret “gay life” and wanted to end their marriage. It was the main motive that the prosecution offered at trial for Kathleen’s alleged murder (the other being a $1.5 million life insurance policy). According to Assistant District Attorney Freda Black, Kathleen would have been infuriated by learning that her husband, who she truly loved, was bi-sexual and having an extramarital relationship—not with another woman—but a man, which would have been humiliating and embarrassing to her. The prosecution team believed that once she learned this information an argument ensued and a homicide occurred.
- The defense argued that Kathleen accepted Michael’s bisexuality and that the marriage was very happy, a position supported by Michael and Kathleen’s children and other friends and associates.
- Late in the trial the defense team produced the missing blow poke, which they said had been overlooked in the garage by police investigators. Forensic tests revealed that it had been untouched and unmoved for too long to have been used in the murder. A juror contacted after the trial noted that the jury dismissed the idea of the blow poke as the murder weapon.
- The prosecution declined to accuse Peterson of Ratliff’s death, but introduced the death into the trial as an incident giving Peterson the idea of how to “fake” Kathleen’s accident. Despite police reports that there was very little blood at the scene of Ratliff’s death, the nanny, who was the first to discover Ratliff’s body in 1985, took the stand at Peterson’s trial and testified that there was a large amount of blood at the scene. Another witness testified to spending much of the day cleaning blood stains off the wall.
On October 10th, 2003, after one of the longest trials in North Carolina history, a Durham County jury found Peterson guilty of the murder of Kathleen, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. (Denial of parole requires premeditation.) Despite the jury accepting the murder was a “spur-of-the-moment” crime, they also found it was premeditated. As one juror explained it, premeditated meant not only planning hours or days ahead, but could also mean planning in the seconds before committing a spur-of-the-moment crime. Peterson was housed at the Nash Correctional Institution near Rocky Mount.
In August 2010, following a series of newspaper articles critical of the SBI, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper led an investigation which resulted in the suspension of SBI analyst Duane Deaver, one of the principal witnesses against Peterson, after the report found his work among the worst done on scores of flawed criminal cases. Pollard subsequently filed affidavits to support a motion that Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson order the state Medical Examiner’s Office to turn over all documentation related to Kathleen’s autopsy to Peterson’s attorneys. However, Judge Hudson barred Pollard from filing further motions on behalf of Peterson because he did not represent him. A new motion was filed in August 2010 by David Rudolf, one of Peterson’s original attorneys, who acted pro bono in proceedings challenging the SBI testimony. Deaver was fired from the SBI in January 2011, after an independent audit of the agency found he had falsely represented evidence in 34 cases, including withholding negative results in the case of Greg Taylor, a North Carolina man who spent seventeen years in prison on a murder conviction based on Deaver’s testimony. A bloodstain-analysis team that Deaver had trained was suspended and disbanded. In the 2003 Peterson trial, Deaver testified that he had been mentored by SBI bloodstain specialist David Spittle, had worked 500 bloodstain cases, written 200 reports, and testified in 60 cases. During the retrial hearing, SBI Assistant Director Eric Hooks testified that Deaver had written only 47 reports. Spittle testified that he could not recall mentoring Deaver who, since completing a two-day training course in the 1980s, had testified in only four cases, the Peterson case being the third. The SBI cited the bloodstain analysis given in the fourth case as the reason for firing Deaver.
On December 16th, 2011, Peterson was released from the Durham County jail on $300,000 bail and placed under house arrest with a tracking anklet. His release on bond followed a judicial order for a new trial after Judge Hudson found that Deaver had given “materially misleading” and “deliberately false” testimony about bloodstain evidence, and had exaggerated his training, experience, and expertise. Former North Carolina Attorney General Rufus Edmisten said that any evidence gathered after Deaver arrived at the scene might be deemed inadmissible in a new trial.
In October 2014, the court appointed Mike Klinkosum to represent Peterson, replacing David Rudolf, who had been working pro bono on the case since Peterson’s conviction was overturned. Rudolf had stated that he could no longer afford to represent Peterson without being paid. On November 14th, 2016, Peterson’s request for the second trial to be dismissed was refused, and a new trial was scheduled to begin on May 8th, 2017. However, a news report on February 7th, 2017, indicated that a resolution had been negotiated by Rudolf (once again representing Peterson) and the Durham County District Attorney. On February 24th, 2017, Peterson entered an Alford plea (a guilty plea entered because sufficient evidence exists to convict him of the offense, but the defendant asserts innocence) to the voluntary manslaughter of Kathleen. The judge sentenced him to a maximum of 86 months in prison, with credit for time previously served. Because Peterson had already served more time than the sentence (98.5 months), he did not face additional prison time.
Even though there’s so many people who believe that Michael is guilty, there’s also so many that believe he’s innocent. I’m still not quite sure how to feel. What do you think?