On 9th December 2001 at around 2 in the morning, Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in Durham, North Carolina. The 48-year-old mum, wife, and businesswoman was discovered by her husband, Michael Peterson, who called 9-1-1 in a frenzy after he found her body, covered in blood. When paramedics arrived, Kathleen was pronounced dead. They had been married for five years.
This is the beginning of the complicated, conspiratorial, and totally addictive story of The Staircase, a true crime documentary series premiering on Netflix on 8th June. But this trial and potential murder isn't new. For true crime buffs, The Staircase documentary is seen as a sort-of big brother companion piece to Netflix's popular Making A Murderer series. The original Staircase documentary premiered as a French mini-series in 2004, helmed by Oscar-winnning director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, and a short follow-up, The Staircase 2, was released in 2012.
The series followed around Michael and his family (he and Kathleen shared a total of five children, two adopted, two from Michael's previous marriage, and one from hers) during the 2003 trial in which Michael was found guilty for the murder of his wife and subsequently served eight years in prison. But now, 17 years after Kathleen's death, and 14 years after the original documentary, Netflix and de Lestrade have more of Michael's story to share. Three episodes more. (If you're confused, here's a guide to what you need to know about The Staircase before you watch). The story is being presented as one long, 13-episode narrative, so if you're brand new to The Staircase story, start with episode 1 and go from there.
But, if you just want to know what's in the new episodes, comprised of footage taken from Michael's most recent 2017 trial, and brand new interviews with the now-74-year-old father and grandfather, we're breaking it down for you right now.
Let's cut to the chase: Did Michael Peterson kill Kathleen Peterson?
Michael Peterson has maintained that he is innocent of murdering his wife, Kathleen. He also maintains his innocence in the death of his friend, Elizabeth Ratliff, who also died from injuries sustained while supposedly falling down a flight of stairs. (Michael adopted her two children after her death in 1985, and they maintain their adopted father's innocence in both murder accusations as well). We will never know exactly what happened that night (an owl, a raptor, a blowpoke, a sharp fall on a staircase), but we do know that Michael has maintained his innocence.
So even if he did it, he would never admit to it, got it. What else happens in the new episodes?
Episode 11 takes place in 2o14, and shows footage of Michael right after a judge allows him to be taken off of house arrest. He had been released from prison after 8 years, but was on year two of house arrest with an ankle monitor. Many said this type of house arrest was unprecedented and a judge agreed. In this episode we see David Rudolf, Michael's lawyer, who maintains his client's innocence to this day, too. Rudolf counsels Michael on a plea deal, and while Michael is willing to do anything to get this trial behind him, he says one thing that will remain true for the rest of the three episodes: “I cannot say I am guilty of killing Kathleen. I just cannot do that.”
But the episodes aren't all legal talk or "I didn't kill her" talk — there's a big break. In 2016, a box of Kathleen's clothes were found in a Durham police station. The bags holding them had been tampered with. Bags with clothes that were never tested for DNA, even though they should have. Bags with clothes that could, according to an expert, no longer provide any clear DNA test results. Rudolf argues that this clothing could have essential DNA to support the "intruder theory." Michael's team places in a motion a hearing to dismiss the murder charges for due process violations.
Oh, wow, so that works?
No, definitely not. But two people's names are dragged through the mud: Duane Deaver and Suzy Barker. Apparently they were supposed to have tested the items back in 2003 but never did. Even though Michael's team wants the case dropped, the judge is like "Nah" because the prosecution had found other sufficient evidence, in his eyes, to sustain the murder charge.
Instead, the DA calls up Michael's team and proposes a plan. Remember, this whole time, Michael is out of prison and just waiting to see if he is going to have the case dropped, have a retrial, or accept a plea. The DA wants the latter. And they want him to say he is guilty. But Michael, as he said before, refuses to say that word. By now it's February 2017 and everyone looks and feels old. Episode 11 started in 2014, and now we're in episode 3 three years later and little has changed, just a lot of back-and-forth between the defence and prosecution.
But back to the plea deal, both parties finally settle on an Alford plea.
What is an Alford plea?
That's what Michael wants to know. An Alford plea is the ultimatum. It's go through the trial again, with the newfound edge that two people goofed up DNA evidence and hope that the jury sides with Michael's story despite all the other evidence against him, or take this plea deal. An Alford plea essentially means the accused is admitting guilt. It's the equivalent of a guilty plea, without the G-word attached.
That is confusing.
You can read more about them here, but yeah, they're confusing. In an interview in episode 13 with an Associated Press reporter, Rudolf is asked why Michael would accept this deal if he is innocent. “He could not put his faith in the system again," Rudolf responds. Later in the episode, Rudolf shares his final statement on behalf of Michael to the court. "Mr. Peterson was never guilty, he is not guilty, he is not admitting guilt," he says. "He does not feel that he got a fair trial based on the conduct of the law enforcement officers, and he is not willing to play again at an unfair and crooked table."
Is that the end? That he accepts an Alford plea and is "guilty," but not?
No, the very end of the series is really something to behold. Michael, drenched in sweat in a blue polo, is completely dragged by Kathleen's sister, Candace. Addressing the judge directly, just moments after Michael accepts the Alford plea (the word "guilty" still never leaving his lips), Candace has no trouble labelling her former brother-in-law an "adulterer" (he had relationships with men, and the defence believes the public knowledge of his bi-sexuality may have hurt his chances at a fair trial). She adds that he should be wearing a big "G" for "guilt" for the rest of his life. "Michael Peterson was correctly found guilty, and he is guilty here today," she tells him. Immediately after the judge asks if there is anything else (a stunned Rudolf says "No") and the court is dismissed. Michael is a free man. The last thing we see Michael do is queue up his favourite song via Alexa: "Everybody Knows" by Leonard Cohen.
The Staircase is streaming on Netflix now.