When the true crime docuseries “The Staircase” was released on Netflix last month, along with three new episodes, many followers of the case against Michael Peterson were hoping the new footage would finally address the long-running “owl theory.” Peterson had been convicted of murdering his wife, Kathleen Peterson, who was found in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase in the couple’s Durham, North Carolina, home. The conviction had been overturned; this alternate explanation for Kathleen’s death speculated that she had fallen prey to a barred owl.
Alas, the 13-episode series included just one vague, passing reference to this “owl theory,” with no further extrapolation. The Staircase was focused solely on documenting the case’s legal ups and downs, not solving Kathleen’s death, and the owl theory was never seriously pursued by either side. Although Michael is still responsible for Kathleen’s death in the eyes of the law, the Alford Plea he took allowed him to maintain his innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict, leaving open the possibility it might have been an accident — or another type of foul play.
Both Michael’s longtime defense attorney, David Rudolph, and Staircase director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade have come out to endorse the “owl theory” as significantly more plausible than its been given credit for.
“The first time I heard about the owl theory, I said, ‘Oh forget that,’” de Lestrade tells Rolling Stone. But now? “That, to me, so far, should be … the most plausible explanation for what happened.”
Rudolph addressed the theory in a blog post earlier this month, admitting, “In 2003, none of us considered whether any of those scalp wounds might have been inflicted by a bird of prey. It just never crossed my mind. I wish it had.”
The lacerations found on Kathleen’s scalp were a subject of debate at trial. The prosecution argued that Michael “beat” Kathleen to death with a fireplace tool called a “blow poke,” delivering seven impacts to her head that caused her scalp to split. The defense argued that the lacerations were caused by three impacts which, they theorized, resulted from an accidental fall down the stairs. Both sides agreed that Kathleen had ultimately bled to death.
The “owl theory” was first raised by an attorney named Larry Pollard, who happened to live next door to the Peterson home. Before the case had even gone to trial, Pollard contacted lead prosecutor, then-Durham County District Attorney Jim Hardin, and made his case for why a barred owl was a more likely suspect. Clearly he didn’t convince Hardin to drop the charges against Michael, and when Pollard reached out to Rudolph near the end of the trial, the defense attorney dismissed the theory too, telling Huffington Post that Pollard didn’t really have “his ducks in a row at that point in time.” Those who knew about the “owl theory” largely dismissed it as a joke.
If not for the Internet, it might have stayed that way. A few years after Michael’s conviction, case files — including medical evidence that hadn’t been discussed during the trial — were uploaded online. On forums, in comments sections and eventually on Reddit, armchair detectives theorized about previously unknown details, like the pine needles stuck to one of Kathleen’s hands, which were clutching clumps of her own hair, and the presence of a microscopic feather like those on an owl’s feet. While the theory was still instinctively dismissed by many as a preposterous joke, the prevalence of animal-attack videos on YouTube gave others pause. Did an owl do it?
Rudolph blog post lists even more circumstantial evidence, like the blood on the outside walkway and door frame indicating “that Kathleen went out to the front yard,” and the “tiny wounds on Kathleen’s face” being “consistent with the tip of an owl’s beak.” A diagram of Kathleen’s head shows two tri-pronged wounds that, frankly, look like how you might imagine a crude drawing of large bird feet to look.
In the late 2000s, three expert witnesses — in veterinary medicine, neurosurgery, and, uh, owls — endorsed the theory in signed affidavits submitted as part of Michael’s appeal efforts. The director of Raptors of the Rockies, a Montana-based nonprofit that educates the public about birds of prey, wrote that the lacerations on Kathleen’s scalp “look very much like those made by a raptor’s talons, especially if she had forcibly torn the bird from the back of her head.”
“Maybe she was attacked while she was outside,” de Lestrade says. “And she ran in the house, shut the door and ran to the staircase to go upstairs … to [get a] towel [for the blood] and then she fell on the first or second stair, and fell unconscious in her own blood. It can make sense. It’s not foolish.”
But perhaps most convincing is the fact that barred owls were actually living in the woods near the Peterson home.
“For sure, there was an owl nest very near the house,” de Lestrade exclaims. “I saw it!”