‘The Staircase’ Documentary Series Review: New Episodes Complete Michael Peterson’s Story


Netflix will premiere the newly expanded critically acclaimed documentary series The Staircase on June 8, 2018. The Staircase is the grandfather of all true crime docuseries, originally airing as an eight-episode series in 2004. Two additional episodes were added in 2013, and now an additional three episodes have been added to The Staircase for its 2018 airing on Netflix.

In 1985, novelist Michael Peterson’s neighbor Elizabeth Ratliff fell down a flight of stairs in her home in Germany and passed away. Her death was ruled an accident, and Peterson subsequently adopted her two daughters, Margaret and Martha, and raised them as his own. On December 9, 2001, Michael’s second wife, Kathleen, met a similar fate. Kathleen stumbled down a flight of stairs in the Petersons’ North Carolina home and died surrounded by a large pool of blood and more questions than answers.

Michael, who was home at the time of Kathleen’s death and made what sounds like a frantic call to 9-1-1 for help, was immediately a suspect. The autopsy report lists seven large lacerations on Kathleen’s scalp that were suspicious and didn’t fit the scenario of a short fall down indoor stairs. The amount and locations of the blood splatter was also at odds with a fall.

Charged with murder, Peterson denied having anything to do with his wife’s death. His children stood by him as the prosecution built their case which posited the blood splatters reached too high and too far to have been made in a stumble down a flight of stars. The prosecutors suggested Michael had struck his wife with a blow poke – a long, slender pipe that the couple had received as a gift many years before.

As Michael Peterson and his highly respected defense attorney David Rudolf prepared for trial, they agreed to allow filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and his team to film the process. The documentary crew was given an incredible amount of access to everyone involved. They followed Peterson throughout the trial and obtained hundreds of hours of footage including interviews with Michael, his legal team, and the Peterson family. The result of their lengthy undertaking is a documentary series that broke new ground when it originally aired and continues to be the source of fierce debate all these years after Kathleen Peterson’s murder.

The original eight episodes covered the trial, with two episodes added in 2013 during the appeals process. Peterson had already served eight years of his life sentence in 2013 when it was determined one of the key witnesses against him, forensic investigator Duane Deaver, falsified evidence in other criminal cases. Episodes 9 and 10 cover that period of time and show the emotional impact his eight-year absence had on his children as well as the physical toll those years in prison took on the novelist.

Peterson was ultimately released from prison in December 2011 and episodes 11, 12, and 13 pick up Peterson’s story as he and his defense team attempt to figure out their best option. Should he undertake another trial or plead guilty and get off with time served? The never before aired new episodes series examine the thought process behind Michael’s ultimate answer to that question.

Questions continue to linger about his guilt or innocence at the conclusion of the 13 hour-long episodes. His initial trial revealed the many skeletons that reside in Michael’s closet, including the fact he was engaged in relationships with men. He says Kathleen was aware of this facet of his life, but no one can back up his claim Kathleen knew he was bisexual. The death of his neighbor years earlier under similar circumstances was also introduced in his trial, with the prosecutors taking the extraordinary step of having her body exhumed and examined. After an initial ruling of accidental death, Elizabeth Ratliff’s cause of death was changed to homicide. Prosecutors were able to introduce details on Ratliff’s death into the trial, revealing that in addition to be being a neighbor and close friend, Michael Peterson was the last person to see Elizabeth alive.

The Staircase Documentary Series

Michael Peterson and David Rudolf in court in a scene from ‘The Staircase.’ (Photo Courtesy of Netflix)

Is Michael Peterson innocent of the murder of Kathleen Peterson? Is there a logical explanation for the similarity between the deaths of two women he was close to? What caused the multiple lacerations in the scalps of both Elizabeth and Kathleen? The case is now closed, but doubts remain as to what really happened to Kathleen Peterson.

The Staircase examines every aspect of the case from Michael Peterson’s point of view, and he never shies away from playing to the camera. There’s very little coverage of Kathleen the person rather than Kathleen the possible murder victim in the documentary series; she’s almost relegated to being a footnote in Michael’s story. The Staircase is all about Michael’s thoughts and feelings, tipping the scales toward Michael over his deceased wife throughout.

The Staircase is one of the few documentaries that allows the audience to see all the facets of the criminal defense process, guiding the audience through Michael Peterson’s arrest, his jury trial, and into the appeals process and beyond. It’s a fascinating series that well deserves to be held up as the gold standard among true crime documentary series.



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