The True Tale At the back of The Staircase

Actual Tales is an ongoing column about the real tales at the back of motion pictures and TV displays. It’s that straightforward. This installment makes a speciality of the real tale of the Michael Peterson homicide trial as depicted in The Staircase.


The Staircase, a drama miniseries from HBO Max, takes its inspiration from a French documentary sequence (later expanded by way of Netflix) of the similar identify, directed by way of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Each works inform the real tale of novelist Michael Peterson (now performed by way of Colin Firth within the dramatic model), who in 2003 was once convicted of murdering his spouse, Kathleen (performed by way of Toni Collette), two years previous in Durham, North Carolina. A retrial ended in Michael’s unlock in 2017.

Within the a long time that experience adopted, the case stays of super pastime to true crime fans. As one native information station in North Carolina put it, the Peterson case is “one of the infamous and longest-running felony circumstances in Triangle historical past.”

A 2010 file from NBC Information titled “Dying on the Backside of the Stairs” describes the occasions of December 8, 2001, on the Peterson family. They spent the day Christmas buying groceries. They opened some bottles of wine, had dinner in combination, watched one thing on tv, and celebrated some just right information: Hollywood was once beginning to categorical pastime in adapting Michael’s paintings for the massive display.

After that, nobody may also be fully positive of what came about. As NBC Information put it:

“Precisely how Kathleen Peterson got here to be mendacity on the backside of the steps gushing blood could be a thriller that will tear a circle of relatives aside by way of the roots.”

Buckle-up for the lengthy, insane, and completely true tale at the back of The Staircase. 

Michael Peterson is Stuck Mendacity

Let’s get started at the start. Consistent with NBC Information, Michael Petersen and Kathleen Atwater moved in in combination in 1987. Michael had separated from his first spouse, and years previous, he followed two daughters of a circle of relatives pal who had kicked the bucket. The women continuously had playdates with Kathleen’s daughter, Caitlin (performed by way of Olivia DeJonge).

For awhile, the entirety appeared proper. Kathleen labored as a highly-paid telecommunications government at Nortel. Michael discovered luck as a novelist, the place he grew to become his provider within the Vietnam Warfare into gas for his writing. He additionally were given concerned about native politics and wrote a column for the newspaper.

The couple purchased a phenomenal house in combination in 1992 and were given married 5 years later. From time to time, they’d struggle. NBC Information notes Caitlin remembered “some actual screamers ” between the 2. However the struggle would normally finish inside of 20 mins or so.

In 1999, Michael was once stuck in an embarrassing lie as he ran for mayor of Durham. All the way through the election, he claimed that he had received a Silver Superstar and a Bronze Superstar all over his provider in Vietnam. But he didn’t have the documentation to turn out it.

Michael additionally claimed he had two Crimson Hearts. Consistent with Yahoo! Information, he stated he was once “hit by way of shrapnel when a soldier stepped on a landmine.” However ultimately, he was once stuck within the lie. It seems, the damage got here now not from battle, however all over a automobile coincidence from the time he was once stationed in Japan after the struggle. Such lies would come again into the general public eye within the years forward.

The Autumn of 2001

As NBC Information notes, the fall of 2001 grew to become out to be a stressful one within the Peterson family. Michael as soon as once more ran for native place of job and misplaced. Kathleen too confronted super drive at paintings. Nortel inventory had taken successful. Staff had been being let pass left and proper. And Kathleen feared her activity could also be in jeopardy.

At the fateful evening of December 8, at round 11pm. Kathleen took a decision from a coworker. Michael, he would later say, sat by way of their pool smoking. He quickly made a 911 name. By the use of NBC Information:

Operator: Durham 911, the place’s your emergency?
Michael Peterson: 1810 cedar side road, please.
Operator: What’s flawed?
Peterson: My spouse had an coincidence she’s nonetheless respiring.
Operator: What sort of an coincidence?
Peterson: She fell down the steps. She’s nonetheless respiring please come.

Police arrived and located Kathleen “in a pool of blood, splayed out at the ground, her head resting at the touchdown of a again staircase.” It was once so grotesque, police may just now not rule out foul play. To the discerning eyes of detectives and mavens at the scene, this didn’t appear to be an coincidence.

Allegations of Murder

In February of the next yr, an post-mortem file published that Kathleen Peterson had died, as NBC Information places it:

“by way of blunt-force trauma. Seven deep lacerations at the scalp. In different phrases, the clinical examiner discovered that Kathleen Peterson have been bludgeoned to dying.”

Quickly, Michael was once charged with first-degree homicide and confronted lifestyles in jail. He denied killing his spouse, and his kids, together with his step-daughter, Caitlin, got here to his protection.

However because the trial started, issues started to get to the bottom of. Assistant District Lawyer Freda Black (performed within the sequence by way of Parker Posey), set to work wondering a sequence of mavens, who testified that Kathleen’s dying may just now not were from an coincidence.

One crime-scene technician recounted Michael’s conduct on the crime scene, in line with NBC Information:

“He was once moaning and he ran thru the house over to Mrs. Peterson’s frame. After which he put his hands round her and he was once nonetheless sobbing.”

The prosecution stated Michael was once simply performing. Different mavens mentioned inconsistencies between the reputable tale and the crime scene proof, that specialize in the volume of blood discovered on the scene and the post-mortem file.

The Wine Glasses and the Blow Poke

Any other professional testified to Michael Peterson’s staging of the crime scene. Consistent with Michael’s account, Kathleen had fallen since the two have been consuming wine and she or he took a Valium. Police discovered a bottle of wine and two “smartly arrayed” wine glasses on the scene. Alternatively, Kathleen’s fingerprints had been nowhere to be discovered. Professionals noticed the entire proof of a staged scene.

And clinical examiners discovered that Kathleen had a low blood alcohol content material on the time of her dying. In truth, mavens testified, she can have handed a typical breathalyzer take a look at administered for suspected inebriated riding.

All the way through the trial, Kathleen’s sister, Candace (performed within the sequence by way of Rosemarie Braddock DeWit), additionally took the stand. She testified that the Petersons saved a blow poke — a hole tube used to have a tendency a hearth — of their kitchen. The police by no means discovered the blow poke, thus fueling hypothesis, consistent with The Wrap, that Michael will have used it because the weapon to kill Kathleen.

However then later within the trial, the protection discovered the blow poke within the storage, thus undermining the prosecution’s argument. Forensic mavens proved the blow poke had remained untouched, and thus may just now not were the weapon.

Michael Peterson’s Sexuality

Because the trial spread out, the non-public lives of Michael and Kathleen Peterson naturally changed into public. The prosecution shared details about their monetary woes and deep money owed. Michael’s novels made little cash. They owed on their taxes. Their kids attended pricey faculties. They usually had been simply slightly getting by way of on Kathleen’s paycheck.

The prosecution made the case that Michael murdered Kathleen, partly, for cash. Via her corporate lifestyles insurance plans, he will be the beneficiary of a $1.8 million providence. However that was once simplest the start, and so they quickly moved directly to every other principle.

The state later tied Michael’s movements to his bisexuality. Fans of the trial started to obsess over the “different guy” in his lifestyles. The prosecution believed that Kathleen had discovered photographs of bare males (kind of 2,000 of them) on Michael’s laptop. There was once additionally a sequence of electronic mail exchanges between Michael and a male prostitute named Brad.

Prosecutors introduced Brad to the stand, who testified he had by no means met Michael however that the 2 had exchanged emails and deliberate to satisfy. The prosecution shared their emails. Caitlin testified how she concept her mom would have replied: “that’s now not one thing that she would were keen to just accept.”

And thus, that changed into a key a part of the prosecution’s case. At the evening of the homicide, they stated, Kathleen took a piece name and located Michael’s correspondence with Brad at the laptop. Kathleen faced Michael, and he killed her, they stated.

Michael Peterson’s Protection

After the prosecution made their case, the protection, together with Michael Peterson’s legal professional David Rudolf (performed by way of Michael Stuhlbarg), caught to the tale about Kathleen’s consuming and unintended fall. They stated the Petersons had been satisfied, in tremendous monetary form, and that Kathleen’s dying may just now not be the rest rather then an coincidence.

The protection additionally cross-examined Brad. They raised the chance that Kathleen had recognized about Michael’s bisexuality and was once tremendous with it. Michael’s legal professionals made the purpose that he frequently referred to as Brad from the home telephone, and thus may just now not were that curious about hiding his sexuality.

Because it pertains to the crime scene and the inordinate quantity of blood, the protection introduced in mavens of their very own to take a look at and refute the prosecution’s. Their mavens incorporated Dr. Henry Lee, at that time recognized to many within the nation as one of the most clinical examiners within the O.J. Simpson homicide trial. He made the case that there was once, if truth be told, an excessive amount of blood on the crime scene for it to be a beating. The protection started to fee the police with sloppy paintings.

However then the tale started to get even more strange.

A Mysterious Dying in Germany

In the midst of the trial, the pass judgement on made what has been described as a stunning ruling. He allowed for the jury to listen to a tale from a long time previous, from the time when Michael Peterson and his first spouse, Patricia, had been residing in West Germany. Historical past, it appeared, had repeated itself.

All the way through the Nineteen Eighties, Michael and Patricia had been residing close to an American Air Pressure base close to Frankfurt. They befriended a girl named Elizabeth Ratliff, a widow and the mum of the 2 ladies Michael would later undertake. The households grew very shut and Michael changed into a type of father determine to the younger ladies.

On November 24, 1984, Michael agreed to take Ratliff house and lend a hand put the ladies to mattress. Day after today, consistent with NBC Information, Ratliff’s sister gained a decision: Ratliff had fallen down the steps and died. Examiners stated “she’d died of a spontaneous intracranial hemorrhage, a stroke, herbal reasons.” Her will stated the Petersons had been to be the ladies’ guardians, and so the brand new circle of relatives moved again to america.

Officers within the Peterson case had no thought about Ratliff’s dying till her sister were given involved with them. Understandably, they had been surprised by way of the similarities. The prosecution and police officers made up our minds to reopen the case into Ratliff’s dying.

A clinical examiner studied Ratliff’s stays when they had been exhumed from Texas. They discovered “lacerations, deep accidents to the scalp.” Seven of them, similar to with Kathleen. The examiner believed that Ratliff’s dying was once additionally a murder.

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A Conviction

The state didn’t fee Michael Peterson with the homicide of Elizabeth Ratliff. However her dying and suspected homicide changed into proof within the case. The protection attempted to object, however the proof was once overwhelming. And as witnesses took the stand, together with the nanny who came upon Ratliff’s frame, the similarities had been too tricky to forget about.

After three-and-a-half months, the jury, after 4 days of deliberation, discovered Michael accountable and sentenced him to lifestyles in jail. NBC Information reviews that the trial tore the circle of relatives aside. Ratliff’s relations broke off relationships with Michael and his adoptive daughters. He not spoke to Caitlin. The sisters stopped talking, too.

The Owl Principle

Michael Peterson’s makes an attempt to enchantment the decision and get a brand new trial had been automatically rejected, together with by way of the North Carolina Very best Court docket. However then, in 2009, a brand new reason behind Kathleen’s dying got here to the outside: the so-called Owl Principle. Durham legal professional Larry Pollard (performed within the sequence by way of Joel McKinnon Miller) have been following the case and raised a brand new imaginable rationalization for a way Kathleen died.

Pollard pointed to proof to again up the declare that Kathleen have been attacked by way of an owl after which fell, hitting her head after operating again inside of the home. Feathers had been discovered connected to Kathleen’s hair and, consistent with the clinical examiner, in her proper hand. Michael’s legal professional have been offered with the speculation within the ultimate days of the trial, and thus may just do little with it within the second.

Different mavens rejected the speculation, on the other hand, claiming {that a} fowl may just now not have brought about the wear and tear Kathleen sustained. However Pollard remained insistent and endured to pursue the speculation. It by no means made its technique to a courtroom room, and thus it’s not within the the unique Staircase documentary.

Retrial and Unlock

Michael Peterson didn’t want an owl to get a fortunate ruin. Years later, in 2010, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation got here underneath public scrutiny for questionable practices. It was once published that one of the most key witnesses attesting towards Peterson, SBI analyst Duane Deaver, was once got rid of from his place after receiving terrible rankings for his efficiency at the activity. He was once later fired for misrepresenting proof in his paintings.

In December 2011, within the wake of the SBI information, Michael Peterson was once launched from prison on bail and positioned underneath space arrest. A retrial was once ordered. The alleged tampering of proof made the state’s case towards Peterson that a lot more difficult to turn out. Years went by way of because the workings of the retrial(s) had been taken care of out.

Then, in 2017, Michael Peterson walked unfastened. He entered an Alford plea to voluntary manslaughter of Kathleen. A pass judgement on sentenced him to 86 months in jail, however as a result of he had already served greater than that point, he was once unfastened to move.

The Staircase

The HBO Max drama sequence of The Staircase is simply one of the depictions of the case in pop culture. In truth, the brand new display itself dramatizes the very documentary sequence on which it’s based totally. All the way through the making of the document model, Michael Peterson changed into romantically concerned with its editor, Sophie Brunet, who’s now performed within the drama sequence by way of Juliette Binoche.

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