The real story behind acclaimed crime series 'The Staircase,' which is set to release on Netflix this summer

The real story behind acclaimed crime series 'The Staircase,' which is set to release on Netflix this summer
The Staircase show posters (Source : IMDB)

Netflix's is set to add to its growing stockpile of true crime series, which currently include 'The Confession Tapes,' 'The Keepers,' and 'Making a Murderer,' after ordering three new episodes of 'The Staircase.' Set to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 28 before arriving on Netflix later this summer, the series has received the backing and praise of Robert DeNiro, who listed the new episodes as one of his most anticipated in an interview with the New York Times.

Directed by the much-heralded Jean-Xavier de Lestrade - who won an Oscar for his 2001 crime documentary 'Murder on a Sunday Morning' - the original 2004 series (Soupçons) follows the story of crime novelist Michael Peterson, who was accused of murdering his wife Kathleen Peterson in December 2001 after he called to report her death to the police. The show derives its name from the fact that she was found lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of the staircase in their North Carolina home. 

Following his indictment, Lestrade and his team were granted unprecedented access to Peterson and his defense team as they worked to prove his innocence. Camera crews were given access to the accused's extended family, the defense attorneys, and the courtroom, filming testimonies, the trial, and even interviews with the jury after Peterson's conviction, accruing over 600 hours of footage in the process. The end product is a gripping courtroom thriller which offers an engrossing look at the contemporary American justice system.

Peterson's guilt has always been a point of contention. Investigators theorized that the murder weapon was a fireplace poker which was discovered missing from the house, though an outlandish theory by a county attorney in 2009 suggested that she had been the victim of an owl attack. At various points, the case crossed over to the realm of the bizarre and captured the nation's attention.

The 2004 run had wrapped up with the jury convicting Peterson of his wife's murder and a life sentence, with a two-hour follow-up titled 'Last Chance' - which covered the novelist's release from jail and pending retrial - premiering at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in 2012.


According to Tribeca's official series summary, the latest installment given the go-ahead by Netflix takes places 'four years after a startling twist wins him release under house arrest,' and if Lestrade's previous work is anything to go by, expect a barnstormer. 

'The Staircase' makes for such an interesting viewing as a consequence of the nature of the case that it follows, and of course, Lestrade's thoroughness and meticulousness. To this day, the case is a contentious one and Peterson's guilt is debatable.

The novelist wrote the last chapter to the last running saga in February 2017 by entering an Alford plea to a charge of voluntary manslaughter. Because the Alford plea allows for the defendant to maintain his or her innocence while acknowledging that the prosecutors have enough evidence for a conviction, there are those who defend him, stating that he had only done so to utilize his plea deal and walk home. Whatever side you take, the story is an engrossing one. 


Kathleen was not Peterson's first wife. He was previously married to Patricia Sue Peterson, with whom he had two children, Clayton and Todd, and who he divorced in 1987. He later met Kathleen, a successful Nortel business executive, moving in with her in 1989, and who died in a much-disputed 'accident' in December 2001.


December 9, 2001: Peterson calls an emergency line to report that he found Kathleen unconscious and that he suspected she fell down '15, 20, I don't know' stairs.' Kathleen did not die immediately. Her life drained out of her slowly as she bled out at the bottom of the staircase 90 minutes to two hours after the fall.

Peterson, who had been alone with his wife at the time, claimed he had not heard her cries because he had been out by the pool. He maintained that she fell down after consuming copious amounts of alcohol and valium, but that theory was quickly dismissed after a subsequent toxicology report found that the blood alcohol content was 0.07%. The rapid emergence of a flurry of evidence pointed towards only one suspect.


The autopsy report concluded that the 48-year-old businesswoman had sustained a matrix of severe injuries, including a fracture of the thyroid neck cartilage and seven lacerations to the top and back of her head, consistent with blows from a blunt object. Peterson was charged with murder.

He pleaded not guilty.

His highly-publicized and riveting trial soon had the country in attention, with the constant developments keeping the public hooked, almost personally invested in the outcome. Testimonies from two medical experts, each of whom was championed by one of the two opposing sides in court, painted two entirely different pictures, adding further drama and confusion. The defense hired Dr. Henry Lee, who testified that the blood-spatter evidence was consistent with an accidental fall.

However, medical examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch stated Kathleen had died from lacerations of the scalp caused by a homicidal assault.

Radisch said the fatal injuries were the result of repeated blows with a light, yet rigid, weapon. The prosecution used the testimony to contend that the murder weapon was a blow poke which was a gift from Kathleen's sister, citing the fact that it was missing to argue Peterson's guilt. In retaliation, the defense claimed Kathleen's skull had not been fractured, nor was she brain damaged, which was inconsistent with injuries sustained in a beating death. Later in the trial, the presented the 'missing' blow poke, which they said had been overlooked in the garage by police investigators. It was unmoved and untouched. 


As the trial proceeded, salacious details of Peterson's life emerged, with the prosecution using the information to attack his character and question his credibility. The novelist had served in Vietnam during the war and had claimed that he had won two Purple Hearts, though there was no documentation for such a claim.

The prosecution latched on to his misreporting of military service and his 'secret gay life' to contend that the marriage was an unhappy one, and Kathleen's discovery of his sexual orientation was a breaking point. In his defense, Peterson maintained his bisexuality was known to his deceased wife and that asserted that theirs was an open marriage.

The turning point in the trial came with the bombshell revelation that when Peterson was living in Germany, a family friend, Elizabeth Ratliff, had died in a suspiciously similar way. She too was found at the bottom of the staircase and had suffered an intracerebral hemorrhage, resulting in similar head injuries to those sustained by his wife. Peterson had been at the house during the death during that occasion as well.


At the time, a coroner determined that it was the hemorrhage that resulted in her immediate death, following which Ratliff had then fallen down the stairs. An investigation by the German and U.S authorities similarly concluded that the death had been accidental and Peterson adopted her two daughters. But after the information came to light during his 2001 murder trial, the body was exhumed for a second autopsy. Despite the furious objections of the defense, the autopsy was conducted by the Durham medical examiner who had examined Kathleen's body and new evidence was used to overturn earlier findings to list Ratliff's death as a homicide.

While the prosecution did not use the evidence to accuse Peterson of Ratliff's death, they did introduce the death into the trial to give the court an idea of how the novelist could have 'faked' his wife's accident. Eventually, they would triumph.

After one of the longest trials in North Carolina history, it was decided October 10, 2003, would be the day that Peterson would learn his fate. The Durham County jury found Peterson guilty of the premeditated murder of Kathleen and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Appeals at the North Carolina Court of Appeals and North Carolina Supreme Court failed, and a motion for a retrial in 2008 was denied. It was only in December 2011 that he finally saw the light of day.


His release was the culmination of an investigation by Attorney General Roy Cooper into the investigative tactics of the State Bureau of Investigation's agents. It resulted in the suspension of SBI analyst Duane Deaver, who was one of the principal witnesses against Peterson and had given 'materially misleading' and 'deliberately false' testimony about bloodstain evidence and had exaggerated training, experience, and expertise. Deaver had also falsely represented evidence in 34 cases and was fired from the SBI in 2011.

Following those developments, on December 16, 2011, Peterson was released from Durham County Jail on a $300,000 bail and placed under house arrest with a tracking anklet. A new trial was scheduled to begin in May 2017 but Peterson's filing of the Alford plea got him a sentence of 86 months with credit for time served. Since he had already served more time than the sentence, he did not face additional free time. He was a free man, albeit still a felon. 


His case intrigues and baffles in equal measure and piqued the nation's interest for the longest time, as evidenced by the plethora of TV shows that cropped up and covered the entire case; Written in Blood, Blood on the Staircase, Staircase Killer, Stairway to Hell, Death on the Staircase, Back Down the Staircase, Trial & Error, and Written in Blood to name a few. 

Close to 17 years have passed since the murder and a conclusive answer remains elusive. Innocent or guilty? Only Peterson knows.