‘The Staircase’: what killed Kathleen Peterson 12 years ago?


The Sundance Channel is in the middle of a re-airing of its riveting 2004 documentary series, “The Staircase,” with the addition of two new episodes.

The French production, written and directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (below), digs into the murder trial of the Durham, North Carolina novelist and newspaper columnist Michael Peterson two years after his wife, Kathleen, was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their mansion.

Michael claimed he found his dying wife after she fell down the stairs, but the local police and prosecutors constructed a murder case against the rather eccentric and chilly man.

Peterson and his defense team gave de Lestrade and his French crew extraordinary access to their preparations for the trial and to what happened after the case went to court.

Perhaps because of his own background as a thriller writer, Peterson clearly saw himself as the heroic protagonist in a twist-filled real-life murder mystery in the vein of “Presumed Innocent.”

Unlike the standard U.S. television approach to this sort of material — in which the guilt of the person on trial would be established early on and then reiterated through interviews with the prosecution and the police — de Lestrade takes a more enigmatic path that leaves the question of guilt or innocence pretty much up to the viewer.

Peterson becomes less sympathetic as the series progresses — we find out that he is bisexual and was cheating on his wife with male prostitutes, his “grief” becomes less convincing the more we observe it — but the prosecution’s case is full of holes.

“The Staircase” leaves plenty of room for doubt, so we are placed in the very tough position of jurors having to pass judgement on a case that remains baffling from start to finish.

The first series of films shown in 2004 ended with the jury finding Peterson guilty in 2003, but the re-airing has been prompted by the appeals which have led to a retrial (which will probably begin next year). de Lestrade and company filmed two new hours which fill us in on what happened to Peterson during his jail time and how his lawyers demonstrated the shoddy investigative standards that led to their client’s conviction.

It is still far from clear how Kathleen Peterson died 12 years ago, but if you are able to look at a murder case in which there are no clear answers, you should definitely start watching “The Staircase” on the Sundance Channel Monday nights at 10 p.m.

Joe Meyers

3 Responses

  1. Melody says:

    I can’t understand how anyone would think him not
    Guilty. Just one look at that staircase pretty much tells
    The story. Also his whole demeaner is just creepy.

  2. Magret says:

    I watched The Staircase, and went back and forth as to Peterson’s guilt or innocence, finally being surprised that he was found guilty. The film is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen.

  3. daisie says:

    you have to be a moron to believe that this lady fell from the stairs!
    It is obvious that her psychopatic ” soulmate” husband Michael Peterson committed the crime. He thought he was so intelligent that he could outwit police, his family -who he obvious used and manipulated- and the entire judicial system.
    Well, you know the saying ” what comes around, goes around!