15 Facts About The Staircase, Netflix’s New True Crime Docuseries

Netflix
Netflix

At 2:40 a.m. on December 9, 2001, Durham, North Carolina-based novelist Michael Peterson made a frantic call to 911 to report an accident. His wife, Kathleen, had fallen down a flight of stairs and was unconscious, but still breathing, in a massive pool of her own blood. Michael, who claimed he had been sitting out by the pool, was not sure how it had happened—he just knew that he needed help. By the time the paramedics arrived, it was too late. But the police weren’t convinced that Kathleen had fallen, or that her death was an accident at all.

Within two weeks, Michael Peterson would be indicted for the murder of his wife, and the case—which stretched on through 2017—only got stranger from there.

There’s not a lot one can say about The Staircase without giving too much away. So if you’ve yet to watch all 13 episodes of the compelling docuseries, which is now streaming on Netflix, bookmark this page and come back once you have. For those of you who have powered through it all and are thirsting for more details on the case, read on.

1. IT’S NEW TO NETFLIX, BUT IT ORIGINALLY PREMIERED IN 2004.

If you had a sense of déjà vu while watching The Staircase, it could very well be because you’ve seen it before—at least most of it. A truncated, two-hour version of the miniseries, which is directed by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, first premiered on Primetime Thursday in the summer of 2004. The completed docuseries made its television premiere one year later, first in England and then in America (on the Sundance Channel). In 2012, de Lestrade released a two-hour follow-up that continued the story. Netflix’s rendition includes all 10 of the original episodes, plus three brand-new ones, which follow some more recent developments in the case.

2. FILMING BEGAN SHORTLY AFTER MICHAEL PETERSON WAS INDICTED.

In 2001, de Lestrade directed the Oscar-winning Murder on a Sunday Morning, which highlighted the case of Brenton Butler, a black teenager who was wrongfully convicted of murder in Jacksonville, Florida. De Lestrade was on the lookout for his next project, and he had a very specific idea for his follow-up: another documentary that would dissect the American criminal justice system, but this time from the perspective of a white defendant who could afford a top-notch legal team. De Lestrade told The Ringer that he and his team spent five months reviewing about 300 cases, which is how they found Michael Peterson. (That both Peterson and his lawyer, David Rudolf, were willing to offer the filmmakers unfettered access to their preparations for the trial was obviously a bonus.)

But de Lestrade had a feeling that there was something unusual about Peterson’s case that would make for a compelling story. “When [Michael] was talking about his love with Kathleen, I really could feel that sincerity,” de Lestrade said. “But, at the same time, there was a kind of mystery about this man. It was a strange feeling.” Peterson was indicted for the murder of his wife on December 21, 2001; shooting on the series began shortly thereafter.

3. IT WAS ORIGINALLY SUPPOSED TO BE A TWO-HOUR DOCUMENTARY.

Though de Lestrade knew that there was something different about Peterson’s case, even he couldn’t imagine the number of turns it would take over the next 15-plus years. It didn’t take long for the director to realize that his original plan to make a two-hour documentary on the case would barely even scratch the surface.

“When we started shooting in February 2002 and when David Rudolf gave us access and the judge gave us access in the court room and we started to shoot and shoot and shoot then we realized how big it could be,” de Lestrade told Metro. “Because in the beginning it was supposed to be a two-hour film. It wasn’t supposed to be an eight-hour documentary series. But after six months of shooting, I knew we couldn’t tell the story in two hours.” Fortunately, the film’s distributors were receptive to the idea of a miniseries.

4. JEAN-XAVIER DE LESTRADE VOWED TO NEVER MAKE ANOTHER DOCUMENTARY AFTER COMPLETING THE FIRST SEGMENT.

Michael Peterson in 'The Staircase' (2018)
Netflix

Reflecting on The Staircase and Michael Peterson’s case for The Daily Beast in 2013, de Lestrade revealed that he never intended to come back to the story once the original series was in the can. “When I finally completed The Staircase in September 2004, I felt as emotionally drained as David Rudolf did at the end of the film,” he wrote. “I told myself that I would stop making documentary films—just as David had vowed that the Peterson trial would be his last criminal-defense case. It was wrenching to watch as Michael Peterson, bound at the wrists, was swept into the car that would take him to prison for the rest of his life. I couldn’t bear Martha and Margaret’s endless tears. It was harrowing to try to comfort a family shattered by a tragedy that seemed so senseless.”

5. DE LESTRADE HAS NEVER STEPPED AWAY FROM THE STORY.

Though de Lestrade has worked on a handful of other projects since The Staircase’s original release, he has never stopped working on the project since he first began filming in 2002. When asked by Metro what it felt like to “return” to the project, the director was quick to make it clear that, “I never quit The Staircase. I have been obsessed by the story and by the character. It has been my obsession to go through the legal process. And to end the series when the justice system gave an answer to the case.”

6. FOR DE LESTRADE, IT WASN’T ABOUT PROVING PETERSON’S GUILT OR INNOCENCE.

In April 2018, Netflix’s three new episodes of The Staircase premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Following the screening, de Lestrade held a Q&A in which he explained that determining Peterson’s innocence—or guilt—was never part of his grand plan for the film. “The purpose has never been to look for the truth,” he said. “Or to look for what happened that night. It was just to look at the way the justice system would treat the case, and it took 17 years.”

7. BUT FOR THE RECORD: DE LESTRADE DOESN’T BELIEVE THAT PETERSON IS GUILTY.

Though de Lestrade wasn’t looking to uncover the truth about Peterson's guilt or innocence, he did form an opinion: He does not believe that Michael Peterson killed his wife. “We weren’t there that night so we can’t pretend we know what happened,” de Lestrade told the Tribeca Film Festival audience. “We may have an opinion or a feeling, but to me, there is no strong evidence presented that Michael Peterson killed his wife. That’s where I stand.”

8. THE CASE HAS BEEN A FRUSTRATING ONE FOR THE DIRECTOR.

The Peterson family in 'The Staircase' (2018)
Netflix

Writing for The Daily Beast, de Lestrade admitted that the long road—and contradictory evidence—that has been presented throughout Peterson's seemingly endless legal battles has been difficult to reconcile at times:

“It has been immensely frustrating that the truth of this story has remained so obscure for so long. I never believed the prosecution’s murder theory. The evidence contradicted it. It’s impossible to kill someone by hitting them over the head without inflicting either skull fractures or cerebral contusions. On the other hand, the fall scenario put forth by the defense didn’t entirely satisfy me either. The lacerations on Kathleen's scalp are difficult to reconcile with an accidental fall down the stairs.”

9. AS BIZARRE AS THE “OWL THEORY” SEEMS, MANY PEOPLE BELIEVE IN ITS PLAUSIBILITY.

The Staircase puts forth a number of possible theories about what could have caused Kathleen Peterson’s death, the most bizarre one being that she was attacked by an owl. More specifically: that an owl got tangled in her hair and, in an attempt to extricate itself, ending up causing her death. It may sound strange, but the autopsy report did note that Kathleen had pine needles stuck to one of her hands, clumps of her own hair in both hands, and a few small feathers entangled in one of those clumps.

“When you look at her injuries, they do appear consistent with being made by an owl’s talons,” Mary Jude Darrow, Peterson’s attorney, told Audubon in 2016. “But I would hate to risk my client’s life or future on that argument.” Several animal experts agreed in the theory's plausibility, as did the film’s director … eventually.

“At face value, this theory seemed absurd, so I treated it with a great deal of caution,” de Lestrade wrote. “Yet, today, I have to admit that numerous facts favor this owl theory. Two years ago, I met with a well-known neurological surgeon. After a careful look—over several days—at Kathleen’s injuries, he told me, ‘These injuries are not consistent with any form of blunt instrument used as a weapon. These injuries could not be produced with a pipe, hammer, knife, tire iron, or even a hand claw such as would be used in the garden. These wounds, however, are most consistent with lacerations caused by a large raptor or bird of prey. Four punctures wounds converging to a point via jagged lacerations, without associated scalp contusions, must be considered to have been inflicted by a raptor talon until proven otherwise. Furthermore, these specific lacerations are of the dimensions of a barred owl’s talons.’”

The idea, according to that same surgeon, is that the owl attack happened outside the house, which led to Kathleen fainting, “most likely on the staircase, leading to a fall either down the stairs or at the foot of the stairs, suffering a fractured thyroid cartilage as she fell. This is followed by a period of unconsciousness, during which she either hemorrhages to death or asphyxiates to death.”

10. PETERSON CALLS ACCEPTING AN ALFORD PLEA “THE MOST DIFFICULT DECISION” HE HAS EVER MADE.

Given that the newest installments of The Staircase involve Peterson entering an Alford plea (a plea deal in which the defendant maintains his or her innocence, but acknowledges that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict them) to the charge of voluntary manslaughter, and walking free, it’s doubtful we’ll see new episodes of the series. But Peterson told Dateline’s Dennis Murphy that entering that plea was “the most difficult decision I ever made in my life … And I’m talking, you know, joining the Marines, anything I did in my life, this was the most difficult decision I made. And I did it because the second most difficult thing I ever did in my life was to live through that trial and listen to all of those lies and perjuries, the nonsense.”

11. THE DOCUMENTARY’S EDITOR BEGAN A RELATIONSHIP WITH MICHAEL PETERSON.

Though the documentary is full shocking moments and revelations, one of the most surprising events happened off-screen: During the course of production, The Staircase editor Sophie Brunet and Michael Peterson fell in love. “This is one of the incredible things that happened during those 15 years,” de Lestrade told L’Express. “Life is really full of surprises. They had a real story, which lasted until May 2017. But she never let her own feelings affect the course of editing.”

12. IT'S TAUGHT IN LAW SCHOOL CLASSROOMS.

Michael Peterson and David Rudolf in 'The Staircase (2018)
Netflix

Thomas B. Metzloff, a law professor at Duke University who was one of Michael and Kathleen’s neighbors at the time of her death, told The News & Observer that The Staircase is required viewing for his students—though he disagrees with the documentary’s suggestion that Peterson did not get a fair trial.

“I don't think the average person who followed the trial closely in real time comes away with a reaction of 'Oh, my gosh, here's an innocent man who is being victimized,'” he said. “Having been to the trial, it was a fair trial. It was a good jury. The evidence was presented and David Rudolf was able to point out the weaknesses. For example, his cross-examination of [SBI blood expert] Duane Deaver, which I attended, was very powerful. So there was evidence to support the verdict. Whether there should have been reasonable doubt is for people to judge based on the evidence.”

13. IT HAS A LINK TO MAKING A MURDERER.

The Staircase has a coincidental link to Netflix’s first big true crime docuseries hit: Rudolf was the UNC clinical law professor of Jerry Buting who, along with Dean Strang, defended Steven Avery in Making a Murderer.

14. A PSYCHIC PURCHASED THE PETERSON HOME FOR $1.3 MILLION IN 2008.

Michael Peterson no longer lives in the Durham home he shared with his late wife Kathleen; it has passed through two owners since first being sold for $640,000 in 2004. The second, and current, owner is a psychic named Biond Fury, who said he had no knowledge of Peterson’s trial or the home’s history. According to WRAL, “he was attracted to the house because of its architecture and layout.”

15. NBC'S TRIAL & ERROR IS A PARODY OF THE STAIRCASE.

Anyone who has watched NBC’s Trial & Error, starring John Lithgow, has likely noticed the many nods to The Staircase in the mockumentary sitcom (there was even a reference to the owl theory).

“The genesis of this was around five years ago in the writers’ rooms across Warner Bros … a documentary called The Staircase was going around,” Trial & Error co-creator Jeff Astrof said at the 2017 Television Critics Association. “And I remember I watched it with my wife—and at the time I wish I had said John Lithgow for this story to work—[but instead] I said, ‘If this guy was played by Steve Carell, this would be the funniest comedy I’ve ever seen.’ And my wife gave me as much encouragement as any time she ever has, and she said, ‘Yeah, maybe.’”

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

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