In 2001, French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for the film Murder on a Sunday Morning, about the wrongful murder conviction of a 15-year-old black teenager named Brenton Butler. The documentary offered a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the uphill battle waged by Butler’s two public defenders, who fought to prove their young client’s innocence against damning evidence – an eye witness’s positive ID and Butler’s own false, coerced confession.
For his next documentary, de Lestrade wanted to explore how the justice system works for a defendant with all the advantages that Butler lacked – money, resources, support and, of course, whiteness. He found the perfect subject in Durham, North Carolina, where Michael Peterson, a novelist and newspaper columnist, had been charged with the beating death of his wife, Kathleen Atwater, in December 2001. Peterson, who was facing life in prison without the possibility of parole, insisted that he was innocent and that Atwater’s mysterious death was not a murder, but an accident.
Thanks to the case’s many ups and downs, what was originally intended to be a two-hour film for HBO became a 16-year project known as The Staircase. On June 8th, Netflix released the entire Staircase saga as a 13-episode series, 10 of which were previously released – the first eight episodes debuted in April 2005 and cover Peterson’s 2003 trial and conviction; episodes 9 and 10 comprise 2013’s The Staircase II: The Last Chance, focused on Peterson’s appeal efforts and overturned conviction. The final three episodes focus on Peterson’s April 2017 decision to take an Alford plea, which found him guilty of manslaughter, but freed him and allowed him to maintain his innocence. (Spoiler alert: This article goes into detail about the latest episodes.)
According to Peterson, on December 9th, 2001, he discovered his wife Kathleen lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase in their Durham mansion, and surmised that she must have fallen down the stairs. Investigators were immediately suspicious because of the amount of blood. Less than two weeks later, Peterson was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
As a columnist for the Durham Herald-Sun newspaper, Peterson frequently took shots at the local police department, as well as Durham County District Attorney Jim Hardin, who had appointed himself lead prosecutor of the case and was seeking life in prison without the possibility of parole. “Michael always felt that he was not going to get a fair trial in Durham,” his longtime attorney, David Rudolf, tells Rolling Stone.
“[De Lestrade] approached us, we did not approach them,” Rudolf says, describing how the project came together. “Once Michael watched Murder on a Sunday Morning and understood the quality of the team, he was very interested in having a set of outside eyes watching the process.”
Without de Lestrade’s footage of the trial, Rudolf wonders if a “cold black-and-white transcript” could have conveyed the many problems with the prosecution’s case – especially the testimony of their blood splatter expert, whose discreditation led Judge Orlando Hudson to overturn Peterson’s conviction.
“I really think that if the filmmakers had not been filming that entire trial, I don’t think Michael would necessarily be out of prison today,” Rudolf says.
The 2003 trial last three months, one of the longest in the state’s history. Peterson had the support of his four college-aged children – his sons, Todd and Clayton, from his first marriage, and his adopted daughters, Margaret and Martha, whom he had raised since they were infants. On the other side of the courtroom sat his former sister-in-laws, Candace Zamperini and Lori Campbell, as well as Atwater’s college-aged daughter, Caitlin, who severed ties with Peterson and the family. The prosecution’s case had already convinced them that Peterson was not the loving husband they thought they knew, and the trio remains as convinced of his guilt now as they were then.
Hardin, along with his co-counsel, Assistant District Attorney Freda Black, told the jury during opening statements that Atwater’s death was no accident – the night of her death, Atwater had discovered thousands of porn images featuring “homosexual military men” and salacious emails from “Soldier Top Brad,” a male escort, on Peterson’s computer.
“We believe that once she learned this information that an argument ensued and a homicide occurred,” Black told the jury.
Though the Chief Medical Examiner’s initial assessment of the crime scene leaned towards an accidental fall, as was the defense’s theory, the autopsy – conducted by Assistant Medical Examiner Deborah Radisch – concluded that Atwater had suffered from blunt force trauma of the head and bled to death 90 minutes to two hours later. The murder weapon, prosecutors believed, was a fireplace blow poke – a Christmas gift from Zamperini – that had allegedly gone “missing.” Radisch testified that the long, hollow rod could have caused the seven lacerations on the back of Atwater’s head.
On cross-examination, Rudolf pointed out that Atwater’s injuries were inconsistent with hundreds of other deaths from blunt force trauma caused by beatings – her skull was not fractured, nor was there any brain damage. This continues to be a major sticking point for de Lestrade. “I don’t know what happened that night,” he tells Rolling Stone. “But, to me, it’s really difficult to believe it was a crime.”
Atwater’s toxicology results tested positive for alcohol and Valium, making it even more plausible that she could have slipped and fallen as she made her way up the narrow staircase. Dr. Werner Spitz, one of the most renowned forensic experts in the country, testified that Atwater’s injuries were consistent with a fall with multiple points of impact.
Juries are often asked to consider the competing testimonies of medical experts and decide whose assessment of the autopsy and other medical evidence makes the most sense in light of the facts and circumstances. But this jury had two autopsies – and according to the prosecution, two victims – to consider. Atwater wasn’t the only woman in Peterson’s life who had met her demise at the bottom of a staircase.
Elizabeth Ratliff, a widow and the birth mother of Peterson’s adopted daughters, was found dead at the foot of the stairs at her home in Germany in 1985. Peterson – who lived in the country with his first wife and sons at the time – was the last person to see Ratliff alive, the night before her body was found by a nanny. Local authorities never suspected foul play and an autopsy concluded Ratliff fell down the stairs after suffering a brain aneurysm.
Eighteen years later, Hardin had Ratliff’s body exhumed so a second autopsy could be performed – and Radisch concluded that she too had died from blunt force trauma of the head.
The prosecution contended that the “similarities” between the two deaths could not be mere coincidence, yet there was no evidence that Peterson was somehow responsible.
To the contrary, on cross-examination, Radisch was forced to admit that at the time she was found, Ratliff’s body had not begun to show signs of rigor mortis, where the body begins to stiffen approximately four hours after death. That meant Ratliff likely died in the early morning hours, when Peterson was confirmed to be at home. Nevertheless, Judge Hudson ruled the new autopsy and testimony about Ratliff’s death were admissible, a decision he has since reconsidered.
“The introduction of the death in Germany was very prejudicial to the defendant,” Hudson admits in The Staircase‘s 13th episode.
Hudson also allowed prosecutors to show the jury the gay porn and emails between Peterson and “Soldier Top Brad” found on Peterson’s computer, against the defense’s objections that the computer had been seized under an improper search warrant, and the evidence itself was inflammatory and unfairly prejudicial.
Though he knew nothing about Atwater’s murder, the prosecution put “Soldier Top Brad” on the witness stand and had him read aloud some of the more graphic emails. But he also testified that most of his clients were straight men in happy marriages, and Peterson had described himself as “in love” with his “dynamite wife.” Nevertheless, prosecutors said their e-mails refuted Rudolf’s contention that Peterson and Atwater were “soul mates” who had an “ideal marriage.”
“[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,” Black told the jury.
De Lestrade says Black was “amazing, in a way.” Her thick Southern accent pronounced “BI-sexual” like it left a bad taste her mouth. And then there was the display she put on in front of the jury, holding up photos of gay pornography and calling it “pure filth” – if you wrote that in a fictional script, “nobody would believe you,” de Lestrade. But, he adds, “the jury really liked her.”
“I think the prosecution really started to believe they would get a conviction when they found the gay pornographic material on his computer,” de Lestrade tells Rolling Stone. “Michael Peterson and Kathleen Peterson had the kind of marriage that made you feel, ‘wow, they are so happy.’ They played a huge role in the culture of Durham, and so, I think [the prosecution believed] the community, and especially the white people playing golf or having lunch at the country club, would think, ‘If you cheat on your wife with other men, you have to be punished.'”
Rudolf agrees. “It was never relevant,” Rudolf says. “It never was. It was smearing Michael to help them convince the jury that he was the kind of guy who would [commit murder].”
Years later, the North Carolina appellate courts agreed with the defense’s argument that the search warrant was unconstitutional, which in turn made all the evidence taken from the seized computer inadmissible. And in an interview in The Staircase’s final episode, Hudson states that he would have made a different decision if a retrial had occurred.
“All the homosexual evidence, however it was used, would have been unduly prejudicial to the defense and probably should not come into evidence,” Hudson says.
The amount of blood at the crime scene immediately made police investigators suspect that a crime had occurred, so they called in blood splatter expert, Duane Deaver, from the State Bureau of Investigation. The defense would later contend that Deaver and other Durham police officers tainted the crime scene.
At trial, Deaver testified that his analysis of the blood at the crime scene and on the inside of Peterson’s shorts led him to conclude that that the defendant had murdered Atwater by repeatedly striking her over the head.
Deaver conducted videotaped experiments in a model staircase in an effort to replicate the blood splatter stains at the crime scene. But on cross-examination, he was forced to concede that his experiments were designed to confirm his theory, did not factor in all of the relevant variables, and he admitted that he did not test any alternative theories. Defense expert Dr. Henry Lee strongly disagreed with Deaver’s conclusions, testifying that the splatter was more consistent with a fall rather than a beating – for example, there was no “cast-off,” the type of blood splatter that originates from the weapon as it’s in use.
During one experiment, Deaver struck the blood source 38 times – well beyond the seven contended by the prosecution – and there were still massive differences between the blood splatter in the model staircase and the real one. Yet Deaver maintained that he had “no doubt” Peterson had beat Atwater to death.
During closing arguments, Black told the jury that in order to believe Atwater’s death was an accident, “well, you’re just gonna have to believe that Duane Deaver is a liar.” Deaver and the other prosecution experts were “tried and true, because they work for us,” Black said.
As it turned out, Deaver shouldn’t have been trusted at all – an investigation in 2010 found that Deaver and other SBI employees had a pattern of giving misleading and false testimony; falsifying and omitting reports; and tampering with results in order to assure convictions. In one case, Deaver’s testimony led to the wrongful conviction of a man who spent 16 years in prison before being cleared by DNA.
In December 2011, Judge Hudson determined that Deaver had lied to the jury in the Peterson case, and ordered a new trial. Prior to that decision, Peterson’s other appeal attempts had failed. Rudolf thinks de Lestrade’s trial footage made a difference.
“[We were] able to show the judge the actual testimony where the judge is sitting on the bench and Deaver is lying right in front of the judge and lying to the jury,” Rudolf tells Rolling Stone. “And you pick up his facial expressions and his demeanor and his certitude in saying certain things that were just false. All of that really, really helped me in immeasurable ways to convince the judge that Michael needs a new trial here. This is not just a little thing, this was the essence of the case.”
According to prosecutors, Atwater had been killed with a fireplace blow poke that had later disappeared – but the “missing” blow poke wasn’t missing at all. Towards the end of the trial, Rudolf dropped a bomb – the blow poke had been found in the Peterson’s garage, covered in cobwebs, dead insects and dust, but no blood or any other forensic evidence connecting it to Atwater’s death.
In the courtroom, Rudolf had lead detective Art Holland identify the blow poke as the one the prosecution had described as the murder weapon, and asked if he knew where it had been for the previous 20 months. “No, I do not,” Holland replied.
The final episode of The Staircase suggests otherwise. Last year, Rudolf learned that Holland and other police investigators had allegedly found the blow poke during one of their initial searches of the Peterson house.
“They … found that particular instrument, which they thought at the time was a curtain rod,” Rudolf tells Rolling Stone. “It wasn’t dented, it wasn’t bloody. There was no indication it had been used in anything, so they put it into the basement/garage area. … Once the police claimed that [the murder weapon] was a blow poke, they had a replica, they had Candace’s blow poke to compare to what they had seen. So they clearly knew they had found that thing and just sat on the information and let the jury be deceived.”
Rudolf says that while hiding this information amounts to “misconduct” by law enforcement, the revelation came too late to have any impact on Peterson’s decision to take an Alford Plea. After all, the jury convicted Peterson even after the prosecution’s blow poke theory fell apart, convinced by Deaver’s blood splatter “expertise,” the revelations about Peterson’s sexuality and the staircase death of Elizabeth Ratliff.
When Durham’s current District Attorney – Hardin is now a North Carolina judge – declared they intended on retrying Peterson (rather than dropping the charges), Rudolf and his client considered whether to take their chances. Deaver would never be called to testify, but Rudolf says that prosecutors “clearly could have gotten another blood spatter expert to come in and do his or her voodoo.” During an in-chambers meeting with both Rudolf and the D.A., Judge Hudson had implied he wouldn’t allow evidence related to Ratliff’s death or Peterson’s bisexuality a second time around, but he still “left the door open that he might,” Rudolf says.
“To tell you the absolute truth, was I tempted to say ‘Let’s go to trial’?” Rudolf says. “Sure I was. Just from an ego perspective, for me, it would have been nice to hear a jury say ‘not guilty.’ And from Michael’s perspective, there would have been some satisfaction in a jury saying ‘not guilty.’ But Kathleen would still be dead. He would still be 72 years old. He would still have lost eight years of his life to a conviction that should have never been. … It would have been another six months before we went to trial and, you know, he just wanted to get on with his life.”
De Lestrade is ready for that too. When he started this project over 15 years ago, he never imagined it would go on this long.
“At the end of the trial, I couldn’t really believe that the jury would find Michael Peterson guilty,” he says. “I had the feeling there was reasonable doubt. When the jury came back with the guilty verdict, I was very shocked. I thought, ‘I can’t end the story there.’ To me, the purpose was not to search for the truth, or to do an investigation into what happened that night … it was a look at the system, at justice, and now it’s finished. I’m glad it’s finished.”