Firstly, yes The Staircase is based on real life events. If you have been watching the drama unfold on Sky Atlantic or if you have watched the documentary on Netflix (true story) then you might have a lot of questions. So many theories, which one do you believe? Did Michael Peterson do it? Did she fall as a result of an accident? Did someone enter the home and kill her? See below a case summary and review from both TV series. Please note spoilers regarding both shows.
The Staircase case summary
On 9th December 2001, Michael Peterson called 911 to report his wife had fallen down the stairs and was still breathing, and needed an ambulance. They had been out by the pool drinking when Kathleen, his wife, had come in to the house to get to bed as she had an important meeting the next day. He went into the house a half an hour later to find her covered in blood at the bottom of the stairs.
The police were suspicious due to the amount of blood found on the scene and after the evidence of Michael’s sexuality came to light, Kathleen’s sister suggests the missing blow poke (for the fire) was how Michael killed his wife. I had no idea what a blow poke was until I watched these TV shows! I am sure I am not the only one.
Through the trial it comes to light that his daughters birth mother also died and was found at the bottom of the stairs. So the prosecution went after this case too – it was some 17 years prior to this case and they had the same examiner do both autopsy’s. The result was determined that both died from blunt force trauma to the head. The original autopsy on Liz Ratliff was that she had an aneurysm and so it was natural causes. So the prosecution tried to convince the jury that Michael had learned how to make a death look like an accident.
Michael was convicted of her murder in 2003, life without parole. He spent 8 years in prison and then was granted a new trial because the judge ruled a critical prosecution witness gave misleading evidence. In 2017 Michael submitted an Alford Plea to the reduced charge of manslaughter. But that doesn’t mean he was guilty! An Alford Plea is a guilty plea, where the defendant does not admit to the crime, and can keep their claim of innocence in tact.
On Netflix, you will find the staircase, which is a documentary about the case. This is the true video footage of the case and Michael Peterson’s life, produced by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. They wanted to make this documentary to show how different stories of a crime can be told and how people can believe these different stories. You seen real snippets from the court case, interviews with Michael and his family and how the case comes together.
The documentary follows Michael around his home, it documents what happened in court and shows the investigations that led to the trial from the defense point of view. You hear the 911 call from Michael, the autopsy photos and the crime scene are all shown. It is quite gruesome. One point in the documentary it shows us how photos looked very different, like they have been documented differently from the police photos to the defence photos. The police didn’t have an explanation for the difference in crime scene photos.
The, eventual, retrial was granted because the blood splatter expert from the original trial gave misleading and incorrect testimony, who also embellished his credentials to sound more convincing to the jury. Episode 5 focuses on the testimony that was given by this “expert”, thankfully he was fired promptly and cannot do this again. He suggested that Michael killed Kathleen by holding the “blow poke” only a short distance from her head. There was no cast off blood at all, suggesting Michael cleaned the blow poke in between each hit! Now if you are in the middle of a crime of passion to kill someone, you wouldn’t hit them with a weapon about 20 cm’s from the victim’s head and make any kind of impact! Not that I have tried. But you wouldn’t also think about cleaning the weapon in between each strike either, would you? He also did Luminol tests on the floor around the crime scene and no bloody footprints were visible, which was not submitted to the jury as evidence. I am gobsmacked about all of this, I cannot believe how corrupt this evidence was.
Episode 6 details the murder weapon, the blow poke and Kathleen’s sister testifying she saw the blow poke in every home that Kathleen lived in. Kathleen’s daughter documented, from home videos, that the blow poke was not by the fireplace in a lot of the home videos. We also know that when Clayton came home he found the blow poke hiding in the garage, covered in cobwebs and dust, it had clearly been there a long time! Also, not covered in blood at all.
I don’t really want to focus on the bisexual elements to this documentary because, for me, it has NOTHING to do with the case. It does not demonstrate that the marriage was unhappy as we cannot ever know that for sure, because we cannot ask Kathleen. I think the prosecution played on this too much, as they had nothing else to use as evidence. If they hadn’t found the photos on his computer, would they have brought a case against him? I don’t think they would and that makes me furious!
Sky Atlantic drama series
Firstly, The Staircase on Sky Atlantic is a drama based on true events. There are some elements that have been changed for the point of the series. But the crux of the show will be similar. I did notice how similar the actors actually looked to the real people (shown in the Netflix documentary). David Rudolf, Michael’s lawyer, is played by Michael Stuhlbarg and they look very similar, I had to double take when I first saw him. The drama series is loosely following the documentary, but also trying to depict things that happened, that was not in the documentary.
The drama show depicts, visually, 2 different theories: One where Kathleen falls, by accident, down the stairs hitting her head on the corner of the door frame, falls remains unconscious for some time. When regaining consciousness she tried to get up, slipping on the blood by her feet and banging her head further. Eventually leading to her death.
The other theory, from the prosecution, is that they had a row about Michael’s sexuality and that he beat her to death with a blow poke or similar weapon.
They cover a lot of the documentary too, showing us scenes that happened off the camera. It brings context to some of the clips in the documentary. I am watching it, understanding, it is loosely following the true facts and I was engrossed. It is a great drama series.
Since watching these shows I have read more online about the “Owl Theory“. If you listen closely to the documentary you can hear owl’s in the background. Apparently there were Barred Owls close the the family home and these can be particularly aggressive and have been known to attack humans. You could argue that the wounds on Kathleen’s scalp and face could be attributed to the talons of an owl. There was also an owl feather and twig found on Kathleen’s body and drops of blood outside the walkway of the house.
I have just finished episode 5 of The Staircase on Sky Atlantic and I am looking forward to seeing where the final episodes take us. However I still can’t put my finger on how “bizarre” this whole case is. The lack of evidence from the staircase, if he killed her where was the blood? Where was the blood splatter on the ceiling and walls and Michael’s clothes. I am guessing if this happened in 2022 there would be different tests that can be done to prove Michael’s innocence – so there would be “less” ambiguity.
There is one question that seems to be bugging me; how come the blood was dry on her body and the wall when the police arrived? If Michael found her approximately 30 minutes after she fell – is that enough time for blood to dry? Bearing in mind I am thinking about the theory of Kathleen falling, then at some point getting up and falling again. Does that add up? I am not a blood splatter expert – maybe I need to call Dexter!
Read more about other investigations in my new True Crime section. I would love to know what you think about this case in the comments below; Did you like both or either TV shows?
Featured image is from Netflix.