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 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.
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.
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.
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.’”