The Staircase: The whole series
December 8, 2018 3:04 AM - All Seasons - Subscribe

The high-profile murder trial of American novelist Michael Peterson following the death of his wife in 2001.

The Staircase is a 2004 French television miniseries by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade documenting the trial of Michael Peterson, convicted of murdering his wife, Kathleen Peterson.

The original series has been extended with additional episodes following the further events of the case post the trial.

The Staircase review – still the godfather of the true crime documentary

Whodunnit: the husband or the owl? How The Staircase invented true crime TV

How The Staircase Defined True Crime Series

The True Story Behind The Staircase, the Netflix Series About Michael Peterson's Bizarre Murder Case

In addition, I strongly recommend the BBC podcast series Beyond Reasonable Doubt? which offers a more rounded overview of the case - it fetures long interviews with people on all sides, includes the notorious 'Owl Theory' and critically examines the documentary series
posted by fearfulsymmetry (15 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
So I have strong memories of watching the original series when it came out over ten years ago - the BBC broadcast it as part of the Storyville documentary series. I remember at the time being somewhat shocked that Peterson had been found guilty ... I was undecided either way but thought there was enough reasonable doubt to avoid a conviction.

I've just caught up with the new extended series and while watching it I became more convinced on Peterson's innocence. However after reading up on the case afterwards and especially after listening to the podcast I am now much more convinced of his guilt. Though still not 100 percent. He obviously didn't have a fair trail though.

I find it interesting, that compared to other true crimes series, the subject is very much unsympathetic, at least to me.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:12 AM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I feel that the case presented for an unfair trial was sound. However, beyond the evidence my instincts say he is guilty. I just can't wrap my mind around her falling in that manner (and yes I watched all the explanations), and the issue with the other family friend falling at the end of staircase is too creepy to ignore. (Yet I agree probably not relevant in the trial).

I thought the family dynamics were interesting here- how Peterson's adopted children believe in his innocence while his ex-wife's daughter does not. I watch a LOT of DAteline Mysteries, and it seems that in over 90% of the cases, the family of someone accused of a crime believes in their innocence while the victim's family believes they are guilty. No matter why the evidence is. I feel really badly for his daughters though- they seem sweet and smart. And he seems to be a loving father as much as he is capable (while being a narcissist and probably murderer, IMO). But for the daughters to believe in his guilt, would be hugely tragic for them and their life (looking back too). It'd be too much for them to contemplate I think.
posted by bearette at 10:32 AM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

The "My Favorite Murder" episode on this is great because the hosts flip-flop between innocent and guilty as the case unfolds with Georgia in particular having strong feelings both ways until more is known. They eventually land strongly on guilty, but it's a trip. It's their 100th episode if you'd like a listen.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 11:10 AM on December 8, 2018 [1 favorite]

I saw this several years ago, but it was apparently memorable because I immediately thought, "THE OWL!"

For some reason I really felt he was guilty even though there were plausible explanations for his innocence. It's an excellent series, very well done, and I think it spoiled me for other true crime type stuff.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:35 AM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

@hurdy gurdy girl: you might want to check out the new show; there have been several new episodes added since the version that came out several years ago.
posted by bearette at 4:19 PM on December 9, 2018 [2 favorites]

The "My Favorite Murder" episode on this is great

I'm gonna go ahead and ... disagree strongly, here? That episode was a trainwreck. I love their show, but it was basically all the bad parts of their storytelling, which usually aren't prominent enough to be a problem, just front and center. I spent the whole episode infuriated because they jumped into the story in a way that assumed everyone listening knew every goddamn detail already. I was too frustrated to give it a re-listen but going from memory I swear to god I'm not sure they ever actually state out loud what the setup for the story is or even clearly what the prosecution's theory of the case was, they just keep going on and on and interrupting each other about their obsession with "the staircase" without ever even talking about what the fuck the case is.

If you have not listened to MFM, this is an awful intro episode, and you should not start here.
posted by tocts at 7:09 PM on December 9, 2018

yeah, the My Favorite Murder ep seemed all over the place. (I've not listened to it before)

I'm also kinda shocked - and I've seen this before in other places, that they just flat out accept that the German death was another murder. May be it's because I'm British and therefor European (well for a few more months at least - *sigh*) but I have a real hard time accepting that the German police were so incompetent that they just totally overlooked the possibility of a murder if the evidence was there (never mind the US military police as well). I really don't believe the results of the second autopsy - the poor woman had been in the ground for years and the examiner was incredibly aggressive with her opinions ('Cause of death: homicide').

My theory is that Peterson, either consciously or subconsciously, remembered the incident and thought - probably not thinking that clearly - that he could use 'failing down the stairs' as an excuse for the murder of Kathleen
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:55 AM on December 10, 2018

Blo-Poke. Blo-Poke. Blo-poke Blo-poke Blo-poke.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:13 AM on December 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

My guess is he was guilty, and also he was railroaded. But wow, was he railroaded. Watching the original, I was furious at the way the prosecutor leveraged his sexuality. And the way she went on about him being a "fictional writer?" And of course the way Elizabeth Ratliff's death was allowed to be used. But the more I read about people on death row who have later been exonerated by DNA or other means, there has been pretty much this level of bullshit going on, although it is usually about your race or socioeconomic class than about sex or being a novelist.
posted by BibiRose at 10:10 AM on December 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

Ooh thanks bearette! I will definitely be checking out the new episodes.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:32 AM on December 11, 2018 [1 favorite]

People who enjoyed this should check out his other series, "Sin City Law," which, despite the name suggesting hijinks, is really just...brutal about the realities of how one becomes a criminal in this country if one is poor or disadvantaged in some other way. Not all the cases end up going in ways that can be neatly tied off in narrative format, but that's life.
posted by praemunire at 8:45 AM on December 17, 2018 [1 favorite]

"Watching the original, I was furious at the way the prosecutor leveraged his sexuality."

The bigotry was huge and blatant. It really upset me. And she (and others) seemed to think that it was some sort of slam-dunk.

But, yeah, all else being equal, you almost sort of need to make a strong case that he didn't do it. Not for conviction, of course, but just on the basis of probability. His self-regard grated on me and implied the kind of hubris that would encourage him to think that he could get away with murder. Personally, I found all the stuff about the previous death to be very ambiguous, though.

Police and prosecutorial misconduct in a murder case. It's depressing.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:23 AM on December 22, 2018 [1 favorite]

If you look at various 'where are they now?' articles, Freda Black - the 'PORNOGRAPHY, HARD CORE!' prosecutor - left the states employ (sacked by a new chief prosecutor) and failed to make it as a private lawyer, and ended up doing menial work for a while at least. She seems to have a drink problem (arrested for driving over the influence) and recently died.

The other prosecutor is now a judge.

Dr Radisch, the medical examiner who did the autopsies, is now North Carolina's chief medical examiner

Duane Deaver - the lying blood guy - wasn't prosecuted and when he was sacked he contested it and won 34 months back pay (he still remained sacked though coz they said he should have just been sacked later after he perjured himself) He ended up in a management job in a services company but apparently some people are suing him privately.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:55 AM on December 22, 2018

What an interesting series (at least: the first 8 episodes; I felt like the next 5 should have been 2 or 3).

I think he was obviously railroaded and got a blatantly unfair trial--introducing the escort felt unfairly prejudicial for the time, and bringing in the German death did as well, especially when having that autopsy done by the same person who had done the autopsy on Kathleen. (Having a different coroner come to a conclusion of foul play would have lent a lot more weight to the prosecution's case, but I think they just didn't want to risk it.)

Also, I felt like it wasn't just the judge not giving the man a fair shake; lawyers on both sides struck me as maybe not the best in the business, and I was surprised to learn that one can simply state "Objection" without spelling out the nature of the objection (I thought that was a Hollywood creation).

That said, something about the 911 call (which was, IIRC, played in the first part of the first episode) just struck me as artificial--except when the dispatcher asked how many stairs Kathleen had fallen down. In that moment, when Michael says "I don't know," he sounds seriously annoyed, affronted at the question, and I thought "ah. There's the real you." This perception wasn't helped any by him hanging up on 911, which reminded me hitting the end of your improv abilities and deciding to bail on a skit.

Throughout the first eight episodes Peterson was loquacious and evasive--he gets asked what happened the night Kathleen died and spins this whole story about how they decided to leave the dishes out (in a house where it does not look like any dishes were ever left out overnight) and usually they'd pick up something from Blockbuster, etc.--and already he had switched from answering the question ("What happened that night?") to answering a different question he was more comfortable with ("How did you usually spend your evenings?").

I'm also not sure how he stumbled on Kathleen at the bottom of the stairs with blood all over the walls and leaped to the conclusion that she'd fallen. I think I would have checked if she was breathing then whispered something like "hold on, honey; hold on. I'll be right back" and dashed off to the kitchen to get a knife. (Which, incidentally, is another odd thing about the 911 call--he tells the dispatcher Kathleen is still alive but doesn't talk to her at all.)

At any rate, I'm glad I watched it, even if the last five episodes felt like they dragged on a bit. I do think he got an unfair trial; I also think the prosecution successfully framed a guilty man. Of course I'd prefer it if the prosecution didn't frame anybody, regardless of whether they're convinced someone is guilty.

I feel sorry for his kids (his daughters more than his sons, if I'm honest, esp. the son who came over that night but was never interviewed by the police). They seem decent, esp. given the situation they grew up in.
posted by johnofjack at 9:59 AM on February 13, 2022

I was surprised to learn that one can simply state "Objection" without spelling out the nature of the objection

Depends on the courtroom rules; also, many times the nature of the objection is self-evident given what evidence is being introduced.
posted by praemunire at 10:52 AM on February 13, 2022

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