Well, obviously we can’t know exactly what happened. We have to piece together what we believe happened, based on the circumstantial evidence we’ve recovered.
—DA Jim Hardin, Chapter 1, The Staircase
Never underestimate anybody. It’s a good way to lose football games and wars.
—Michael Peterson, Chapter 6, The Staircase
On 9 December 2001, the night his wife died, recalls Michael Peterson, he rented a video. It was America’s Sweethearts. At the time, he’s walking a camera crew through his home, pointing out details about that night: Kathleen sat there, we had wine, we sat by the pool, and, when she walked toward their home, he adds, dramatically, “That was the last time I saw her… alive.” And then he corrects himself. No, he remembers now, he found her inside, at the bottom of the stairway, bloodied following an accidental fall and “barely” alive.
Even in these early moments in the absorbing eight-part documentary, The Staircase, Michael Peterson appears shifty, at once vulnerable and smug, maybe a little lost without his wife, but a little creepy too. A onetime newspaper columnist and Vietnam War novelist, Michael has been accused of murdering Kathleen. And he and his defense attorney David Rudolf have decided to let Jean Xavier de Lestrade (who made the 2002 Oscar-winning documentary, Murder on a Sunday Morning) record their preparations, interviews with witnesses, strategizing sessions, and the trial.
The film doesn’t judge Peterson, and it’s actually hard to say which way the verdict will go until you hear it in Chapter Eight. But while that tension is certainly gripping, The Staircase is less about the defendant’s guilt or innocence—or, as Rudolf says, the difference between guilty or not guilty—than about the process. That is, the ways that victims and defendants, lawyers and detectives, law, science, and media all bump up against one another in today’s justice system.
The case—stretching over two years—moves in ways that will be familiar to anyone who’s watched even a few minutes of court tv. Following Peterson’s introduction at his home, the film cuts back to his 911 call, his voice high and breathless as the operator tries to keep him talking. Peterson’s son Todd then remembers his return home that night, seeing the ambulance and imagining his father was ill. As he speaks, you’re looking at the police video, walking into the house and coming up on the bloody body and bloody walls. “I can remember finding the body,” says Peterson. Police photos show more detail. Cut to “Lead Detective” Art Holland, who only restates what’s obvious, “There was a very abundant amount of blood on her and the floor.”
The image that marks each episode’s title page features Peterson from the back, standing in his doorway, smoke wafting from his pipe. The image speaks to the difficulty Peterson embodies throughout the film—by turns reserved and cocky, at ease among his many family members and angry at the twists taken by the case. Repeatedly, Peterson demonstrates an understanding of performance, which only becomes more complex and layered as the film unfolds. Te marriage of “soul mates” that he describes and that has been perceived by other family members appears to have chinks in it, or at least some unconventional aspects. He and the 48-year-old Kathleen, a Nortel executive and well liked around Durham, NC, close though they may have been, also shared a secret, Michael’s bisexuality and occasional use of male prostitutes (including one identified on email as “Soldier Top”). While her sister finds it hard to believe that Kathleen was comfortable with this arrangement, Michael insists they had an understanding.
Much of the saga is transmitted via bits of tv reports, used here less as narrative shorthand than as a sociological frame, reminding you—as if you need reminding—of the insidious, annoying infiltrations of Court TV, Nancy Grace, and local standups as means to try cases outside courtrooms. No matter how you feel about the Peterson case at any point, it’s hard not to gasp at the sheer ineptitude of the tv commentators, who repeatedly get basic facts and stories wrong, or else turn whatever information you’ve just seen revealed in the courtroom turned into something wholly other. When, for instance, one prosecution witness struggles to explain why his office did not look for blood on Peterson’s blue shirt, Rudolf and his team are feeling pretty great that they’ve showed this incompetence. Cut to Nancy Grace on tv, surrounded by graphics, who comes back with the “obvious” conclusion that he “changed his shirt,” a conclusion hard to reach based on the courtroom scene (“Sometimes,” Rudolf shakes his head, “I think they’re watching a different trial”).
By now, of course, such media lunacy is the norm for high profile—and even some low profile—cases. And so, while such incidents drive Rudolf to the occasional complaining phone call, for the most part, they serve as a kind of wallpaper for other intrigues in The Staircase. Primary among these is the slick construction of the case, on both sides, as the lawyers bring in jury consultants, witness coaches, focus groups, forensics experts (including Henry Lee, familiar blood spatter expert from HBO’s corpse shows and numerous celebrity cases), and investigators, all stumped for months as to the whereabouts of a possible murder weapon.
While the defense team contends with how to present a loving marriage that allows for one member’s homosexual activity (as Rudolf tells Michael, he’s left emails on his computer saying “that you wanted to suck so and so’s dick”), the prosecutors put together a case based less on evidence than likelihood. The show all the professionals put on—including a family photo array for Rudolf’s closing argument that appears, in run-through, not to be working (“This system sucks,” he asserts)—is both sensational and sobering, as the lawyers pace and profess indignance, and witnesses contradict one another.
Such legal finagling is only exacerbated within the the domestic drama, as the camera keeps close to Peterson’s brother Bill, sons Todd and Clayton, their mother and Michael’s ex, Patricia, adopted daughters Martha and Margaret (who notices, almost hopefully, “The good thing about how disgusting the media is, is that when it’s over, it’s over. Nobody cares. There’s a new story”), and Michael’s daughter with Kathleen, Caitlin, who, by the time the trial begins, believes her father is guilty (“You don’t end up at the bottom of the stairs, under those circumstances, if your life was what everyone thought it was”). She ends up sitting on the other side of the courtroom, with Kathleen’s sister Candace (the defense team helpfully puts together a “family tree,” with photos, in chapter one).
As the opposing sides take shape, the siblings struggle with what they know and what they can’t imagine. This especially when the prosecution brings into evidence a prior death, that of Martha and Margaret’s mother, in Germany, where Michael had been stationed and lived with his first wife Patty: Elisabeth, it turns out, was also found dead one night in 1985, at the bottom of a staircase. Rudolf is visibly stunned (“Okay, well, you guys got a much better film now,” he nods to the camera). The children are stoic. “Basically,” objects Margaret, “the DA is saying, our dad killed our birth mother and our mother. And where are we sitting? Behind our dad.” You can understand, even sympathize with her certainty: none of her life makes sense if her dad is capable of such brutality. But, as de Lestrade’s film reveals again and again, conviction is a function of performance, especially in front of a camera.