Netflix’s The Staircase and the Ethical Issues With True Crime Documentary Series

The Staircase has arrived on Netflix and it throws up questions about the ethics of true crime presented as drama...

The Staircase on Netflix
Photo: Netflix

Post-Serial, post-Making A Murderer, in the heyday of Netflix, true crime documentaries and podcasts have never been more popular or more mainstream. Often unfolding over multiple episodes (and sometimes over years or even decades) true crime docs make up some of the most compelling and addictive TV around. In many ways this is a truly wonderful thing, expanding the chance for great journalism to reach a wider audience and opening up the possibility for dialogue at the very least, and tangible genuine change at best, supporting and drawing attention to organizations like The Innocence Project, which aims to overturn wrongful convictions.

The latest hot button true crime doc to hit Netflix is The Staircase, a series which first aired on French TV in 2004 and has now been updated with new episodes airing for the first time this year bringing us right up to date with the case.

THE STAIRCASE SPOILERS FOLLOW

The Staircase follows the story of Michael Peterson whose wife Kathleen was found dead at the bottom of some stairs in their house in December 2001. Michael says he found her there already dead, but unusual blood spatter patterns, the severity of the injuries to her head, and various secrets and coincidences from Michael’s past meant he quickly found himself in the frame and charged with her murder. A very long trial ensued, which the documentary closely follows, which eventually ends with Michael’s conviction.

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Michael’s children – adopted daughters Martha and Margaret (whose own mother died from a cerebral hemorrhage after falling down some stairs – Peterson was the last person to see her alive, a point used by the prosecution in the trial) and sons from his first marriage Clayton and Todd all stood by their father and were absolutely convinced of his innocence. However, Kathleen’s daughter from her previous marriage, Caitlin, and Kathleen’s two sisters Candace Zamperini and Lori Campbell strongly believe Peterson is guilty.

In the recent updates on the case in the new episodes available on Netflix, we see Peterson’s lawyer David Rudolf fighting for and successfully overturning Peterson’s conviction based on revelations that one of the main witness for the prosecution, Duane Deaver, had fabricated some of his statements relating to blood spatter evidence while other parts of his testimonial were based on experiments that weren’t recognised as valid and so shouldn’t have been admissible (he’s since been fired).

Peterson had served eight years in prison already and was initially released under house arrest with an ankle bracelet, pending retrial then some years later these bonds were removed. Peterson’s lawyer initially tried to get the second trial dismissed, but failed, and a new one was scheduled, though ultimately Peterson took an Alford plea – basically a plea in which he doesn’t admit guilt but acknowledges the state has enough evidence to convict. It’s officially a guilty plea – i.e. he is convicted of voluntary manslaughter – but doing so means he doesn’t have to actually say he did it and doesn’t have to go back to prison because of the eight years he already served.

It’s a gripping series with a semi-satisfying conclusion, depending whether you believe he’s guilty or not – and of course there can be no real answer to that.

But then something happens in the last episode that shines a light on some of the problems with serialised true crime told as drama: these are actually people’s lives.

After the final court session where Michael Peterson takes the Alford pleas, Kathleen Peterson’s two sisters get up to make statements – essentially victim impact statements. Lori Campbell goes first. She’s clearly nervous and upset, she speaks briefly concluding that “closure is for doors” and not murdered family members. Then Candace Zamperini speaks, and it’s explosive.

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Throughout the series Zamperini is somewhat vilified by the doc. Certainly in the new eps we’re told that the original negotiations for Peterson to have the option of the Alford plea are rejected because of Zamperini and that the prosecution is controlled by her. In a doc which certainly in the later sections moves to convince the audience of Peterson’s innocence Zamperini is held up at best as an obstacle, and at worst the villain of the piece. And when she speaks it’s suddenly clear how problematic the whole documentary process is.

A first she talks about the strangeness of “a French film company that wanted to make a pseudo-documentary about my sister’s murder without my family’s cooperation or consent.”

And later about the impact it had on her life – how naive and unprepared for the media attention she was when the doc was first aired.

“The Staircase film was made — and twice episodes were used to threaten and scare Kathleen’s daughter and myself,” she says, clearly full of emotion.

“Michael Peterson states in the film, ‘If not for Candace and Caitlin Atwater, I would not be here in a courtroom,’ and in Episode 8, filmed in the courtroom, Michael Peterson again clearly says, ‘Candace just can’t keep her f*cking mouth shut. I don’t think I’d be here if she shut her mouth.’ These statements were threatening to me, and anyone for eternity can replay them on YouTube and that hurts me and that hurts my niece, and we did nothing to hurt you.”

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She goes on to address David Rudolph (chastising him for calling her sister ‘Katherine’ and not ‘Kathleen’ in an early ep) and the camera crew, and is finally defiantly triumphant that Peterson has been convicted of voluntary manslaughter.

It’s sobering to say the least.

Because herein lies one of the major issues with true crime as serialised drama – it’s people’s lives. And not just the victim and the accused. Now these kinds of series have become so mainstream and such water-cooler events it’s easy for lines to become blurred between fact and fiction, and the televising and broadcasting of these series on mass streaming services like Netflix encourages audiences to theorise for ourselves, to discuss online, to become our own Google detectives – to have an opinion.

In some ways that’s positive, encouraging viewers to think critically, engage and interact. But treating a true case like a fictional whodunit is ethically troubling. What if Peterson did do it and Zamperini is right? Or even if he didn’t, how does that give us, or the documentary, a right to judge her? Here is a woman whose sister has died horribly and who was convinced by the prosecution of Peterson’s guilt in the same way that the jury was. 

Another narrative from the side of the prosecution could paint this picture entirely differently – that she’s this poor bereaved woman fighting tirelessly for justice for her sister while the evil murderer and his corrupt lawyer try to find loopholes to get him off. As often is the case, this series is really about the justice system – what can or can’t be proven – rather than about absolutes of whether Peterson did or didn’t do. But in a way that’s not even the point – as she says, she didn’t consent to be part of this documentary. We really don’t have a right to know her at all.

WARNING – SPOILERS FOR THE JINX, MAKING A MURDERER AND S-TOWN TO FOLLOW

As viewers (or certainly this is true for me) we want to believe people are innocent. We like the narrative of the innocent person wrongly convicted who finally gets justice better than the idea of trying to nail someone guilty. I think this is because most of us aren’t criminals and so we’re better able to identify with being sent down for something we didn’t do than getting away with murder.

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Take Making A Murderer, a highly compelling doc which left many people convinced of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey’s innocence of the murder of Teresa Halbach. So convinced in fact that misjudged petitions and threats to real people involved came from random viewers (this is an excellent New Yorker article about the problems and impact of that show). Reading around it later, and personally I think maybe Avery did do it after all (Dassey not so much). But ultimately it really doesn’t matter what I think, and whether Avery is an innocent victim of a miscarriage of justice or whether he’s not doesn’t make it any more ok for Teresa’s family to be treated with anything other than sympathy.

The Jinx is one of my favorite true crime docs of recent years, an epic six-part series of interviews with Robert Durst, the real estate heir whose wife went missing, is later discovered masquerading as a mute old woman when his neighbor turns up cut into pieces and dumped in a bay, and who is exonerated of this murder, even though he admits to cutting up the body. It’s an insane story which ends with Durst accidentally confessing to these two murders as well as the assassination of his best friend. Nuts. But all the way through I wanted him to be innocent – in another world I could imagine a doc arguing he didn’t do it.

Theories – and fan theories – are inevitable offshoots of these series – reddit is packed with them – but is it really ok to be treating people’s lives like they were an episode of CSI?

This American Life podcast S-Town is a wonderful piece of journalism, which also made me incredibly uncomfortable, not only because of the inherent tragedy of the series and what happened to main subject John B McLemore but also for Woodstock town clerk Faye Gamble, who listened to McLemore as he died, might have forgotten to call some of the people on the list McLemore left, and therefore naturally has her own sub-reddit.

Much discussion into journalistic ethics appears everytime one of these new series lands (here’s The Guardian, on S-Town) and it’s great that these discussions are happening. But for Candace, and Faye, and Teresa Halbach’s brother and everyone else who’s lost someone and never consented to be part of a media phenomenon, it’s important to remind ourselves this isn’t just entertainment it’s people’s lives.