The bad news is you have jury duty. The good news is the summons comes from Netflix, so you’ll be sequestered to the couch where you can watch Michael Peterson attempt to prove his innocence over 16 years in The Staircase (streaming now).
The novelist insists that on Dec. 9, 2001, he found his wife, Kathleen, at the bottom of their stairs after she took a fatal fall. But the Durham Police were suspicious about the amount of blood that covered the walls and ceiling of their Forest Hills mansion. They charged Peterson with Kathleen’s murder, arguing her death was not accidental but assault. He was convicted in 2003, but that’s not where his judicial battle ended.
Netflix asks a simple question in the 13-episode series: “Did he do it?”
The evidence is complex and lends itself to many interpretations, which may explain the continued interest in the case. Blood placement, lacerations on the back of Kathleen’s head and other findings divide experts on her cause of death during the trial. The story has been the subject of many programs: Investigation Discovery aired a three-part look at the case in April; My Favorite Murder podcast hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark discussed why they believe in Peterson’s guilt on their 100th episode.
Even portions of Netflix’s Staircase have already aired. The first episodes aired in 2004, and director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade released a follow-up documentary with new developments in 2013. The last three episodes on Netflix are new. It’s easy to fly through all 13 episodes, which last approximately 45 minutes to about an hour. But those more familiar with the case can skip ahead.
While 13 episodes may sound overwhelming even for the most committed binger, the constant volleying between Peterson’s advocates and his opponents is absolutely captivating. Here’s everything you need to know about why the mystery is so intriguing.
Warning: We are encroaching on spoiler alert territory.
Who is Michael Peterson?
Peterson, now 74, is a Tennessee-native and graduate of Duke University. In addition to penning books like A Time of War, the former Marine served as a columnist for Durham’s The Herald Sun. He could be critical of the police, which some have suggested may be motive for law enforcement to conspire.
Is he capable of killing his wife?
Though the defense drives home that the he and Kathleen were an ideal couple, a crack in that picture comes early on in the series. Peterson, it turns out, had solicited a male prostitute for sex, a fact presented to the jury during the trial. (He identifies as bisexual.) The former escort, Brent Wolgamott, was also called to the stand.
Prosecutors theorized that Kathleen could’ve confronted her husband about this scheduled meeting or his collection of gay porn, spurring an argument and resulting in a deadly beating. A fight would’ve explained the injuries recorded on Kathleen’s autopsy, the state said.
What about his past?
Darkening the cloud of suspicion around Peterson is the fact that Kathleen isn’t the only person in his life who met her death at the bottom of a staircase. While living in Germany with his first wife, Patty, the couple befriended a woman named Elizabeth Ratliff. In 1985, Ratliff, who suffered from headaches, was discovered at the bottom of her stairs after spending the evening with Peterson and his spouse. The cause of death was initially deemed a brain hemorrhage, however Ratliff’s body was later exhumed for an additional autopsy in light of Kathleen’s similar death. It was decided, after review, she was bludgeoned to death.
What about the rest of the family?
It’s not just the public that’s been divided on Kathleen’s death; her survivors are also split as to whether it was intentional or accidental, bringing additional drama to the series.
Ratliff’s two daughters, Margaret Blakemore and Martha Ratliff, adopted by Peterson and his first wife after Ratliff’s death, strongly believe Peterson is innocent. As do Peterson’s sons from his first marriage, Clayton and Todd.
Kathleen’s daughter, Caitlin Atwater, who previously supported her former stepfather, changed her mind after viewing her mother’s autopsy report. Kathleen’s sister, Candace Zamperini forcefully believes Peterson is a killer.
And what will you decide, reader? Begin watching The Staircase to find out.