This article contains spoilers for The Staircase documentary and therefore probably the HBO series as well.
Before we begin, let’s be clear. There are only two people who know the real truth behind the events that are depicted in The Staircase. One of them is dead. And the other is Michael Peterson.
So this article is not going to be able to answer the question of whether Michael Peterson killed his wife Kathleen, and nor indeed is the series. This is not an article about the true story behind Kathleen Peterson’s murder.
Instead HBO’s excellent new drama The Staircase tells the true story of The Staircase – the documentary made by French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and released initially in 2004, later updated with further episodes as developments in the case unfolded.
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and his producer Denis Poncet appear in the dramatization, as do other key players including Michael Peterson’s lawyer David Rudolph (played very convincingly by Michael Stuhlbarg). Indeed the show has an all-star cast with Colin Firth doing an excellent Michael Peterson, Toni Collette as Kathleen, Sophie Turner, Odessa Young, and Olivia DeJonge as the couple’s daughters and Dane DeHaan and Patrick Schwarzenegger as their sons.
It’s a drama about a documentary about a trial about a murder – which sounds pretty meta and it actually is. As of writing, only three episodes of The Staircase have aired so we don’t yet know how the latter part of the series will unfold, and hopefully it won’t just tread the beats of the documentary familiar to those who have seen it and followed the case.
Speaking to Den of Geek back in September 2020 director Antonio Campos (who was still writing the scripts at the time) said his intention was to include other details.
“It’s loosely based on the documentary. The documentary is part of the story that we’re telling,” he said. “And it also encompasses a lot of the Staircase story that happened outside of the documentary and things that were not included in the documentary. So I’ve been with that story for a long time. And I’m hopeful that we can do justice to that complicated narrative too.”
Flashbacks to before Kathleen’s death show a bustling, affectionate family. A house full of love and support, who toast each other and celebrate each other. Is that the truth?
Bickering between the boys in the car hint at a tension and a past transgression. Is that the truth?
It’s clear from the start that The Staircase isn’t claiming to inhabit one clear ‘truth’ at all. It’s more a show about how the lack of a clear truth affected a family and captivated millions worldwide.
Episode one opens with this quote:
“I was born for this. I came into the world for this: to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.”
“Truth?” said Pilate, “What is that?” John 18:37
So we can’t tell you the true story of Kathleen Peterson’s death. So instead, here are the facts that we do know. Spoilers ahead if you don’t want to know how the case develops.
The Facts of Kathleen’s Death
In the early hours of Dec. 9, 2001 Michael Peterson called the police to report that his wife Kathleen had fallen down the stairs. Michael said that he and Kathleen were out by the pool drinking, that Kathleen had gone inside and he’d followed half an hour later only to find her at the bottom of the stairs with blood everywhere.
The police were suspicious of this because of the sheer volume of blood and how it was splattered, the deep lacerations in her head and an injury to her neck which could be consistent with strangulation.
Michael Peterson was bisexual and slept with men. The prosecution argued that Kathleen had discovered these affairs and confronted Michael and he had then bludgeoned her to death. The Petersons were also in substantial debt, and the insurance policy on Kathleen’s life was also brought up as a potential factor in Michael’s alleged plan to kill Kathleen.
The Blow Poke
Much talk in the documentary, and some talk in the series, is of ‘the blow poke’. If your first thought is ‘what the hell is a blow poke’? You would not be alone. It’s a hollow metal stick a bit like a poker which you can use to stoke a fire (and blow down). Anyway, this was a focal point because for a time it was thought the Peterson’s missing blow poke (a gift from Kathleen’s sister Candace) was the murder weapon. Said missing blow poke was found some time later in Michael’s garage and the conclusion was that it was in fact not the murder weapon.
The Other Staircase Case
This is a particularly weird detail. Some years back Michael was living in Germany with his first wife, Patti, when a friend of theirs, Liz Ratliff died. Bizarrely she was found dead at the bottom of a staircase the morning after Michael had dropped her off. The death occurred 17 years before Kathleen’s, was ruled accidental by German authorities and Michael had no motive, but the prosecution still obtained permission to exhume Ratliff’s corpse and presented a case arguing that her death was homicide and not accidental and might have inspired Michael as a way to make a murder look like an accident.
Martha and Margaret, two of Michael’s adoptive daughters, are the children of Liz Ratcliff who made Michael and his first wife the girls’ guardian after she was widowed.
The documentary team that made the docu series The Staircase are also part of the show. These are director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade played by Vincent Vermignon and producer Denis Poncet, played by Frank Feys. The two won a Best Documentary Oscar in 2001 for their film Murder on a Sunday Morning.
They wanted to make a doc showcasing the justice system, showing how many different versions of a story can be told by all the different factions. Including the filmmakers in the series gives an additional layer – it’s a story about storytellers focusing on variations of the same story.
Listen carefully and you can sometimes hear the sound of an owl hooting in the trees in the background during outdoor moments in The Staircase. This is not random, it’s a nod towards ‘Owl Theory’.
Owl theory is a third possible explanation for Kathleen’s death. Did she fall? Did Michael kill her? Or did an owl do it?
This slightly bonkers theory is based on the fact that there were Barred owls living near the Peterson house, a species which can be aggressive and have attacked people in the past. Kathleen’s scalp wounds are somewhat in the shape of owl’s talon, her face wounds could have been made by an owl, an owl feather and a bit of twig was found on her body, and there was blood outside the house on the walk way and on the front door.
The Extra Episodes
The original documentary was 8 episodes long and aired in 2004. This followed Michael’s trial and led up to his conviction.
Eight years after Michael’s incarceration, further episodes were shot, when his Lawyer David Rudolph moved to get Michael a new trial based on overturning testimony concerning blood spatter by the prosecution’s forensics expert. The new trial was granted and Michael released on parole.
Three further episodes focusing on Michael’s final trial were shot and aired in 2018 on Netflix (along with all the other eps).
The Alford Plea
In the dramatization of The Staircase scenes of Michael as an older, frailer man with a new partner (played by Juliette Binoche) are peppered throughout. We can see that after some time he is a free man. At Peterson’s final trial in 2017 he submitted an ‘Alford Plea’. This is where a defendant can plead ‘guilty’ while still being able to assert innocence – an Alford Plea is an acknowledgment that the prosecution probably has enough evidence to persuade a jury to convict while allowing the defendant to still say they didn’t do it. His Alford Plea was to the lesser charge of Manslaughter and he was sentenced to time served and therefore released.
Candace is one of Kathleen’s sisters, played in the show by Rosemarie DeWitt. At Michael’s final trial Candace gave an impassioned impact statement which was one of the most troubling moments of the entire documentary – she points out that her sister is dead, that Michael can be seen in the original doc calling her awful names, and that the general public has been invited into her life which she neither wanted, asked for or even gave permission for. It’s too early to know how the series will deal with Candace and how prominent the trauma she suffered will be.
Obsessed with The Staircase case? Let us know in the comments.
The Staircase Episodes 1-3 are available to watch on HBO Max in the US and Sky and Now TV in the UK.