Before Making a Murderer or Serial, there was The Staircase. Now, finally, the chilling docuseries will be shown on Netflix…
On 9 December 2001, Michael Peterson rang police to report that he had found his wife, Kathleen, lying unconscious at the bottom of “15, 20, I don’t know” stairs.
“My wife had an accident,” the crime novelist told the 911 dispatcher. “She is still breathing… please, get somebody here, right away. Please!”
Peterson maintained that his wife must have stumbled down the staircase after consuming a potent mixture of alcohol and Valium – a theory which was disputed by the post-mortem’s toxicology results. And, when police investigators concluded that Kathleen’s injuries were not consistent with an accidental fall, they arrested Peterson on suspicion of murder.
It is at this point that Jean-Xavier de Lestrade stepped in to begin filming the events for what would eventually become The Staircase, an award-winning docuseries that chronicled the legal battle all the way through Peterson’s eventual conviction.
Through de Lestrade’s lens, viewers are able to watch the prosecution attack Peterson’s character, using his bisexuality as a motive for the alleged homicidal assault.
“[Kathleen] would have been infuriated by learning that her husband, who she truly loved, was bi-sexual and having an extramarital relationship – not with another woman – but a man, which would have been humiliating and embarrassing to her,” District Attorney Freda Black is seen insisting.
“We believe that once she learned this information that an argument ensued and a homicide occurred.”
The docuseries also sees the proscution bring the death of Elizabeth Ratliff, a friend of the Petersons, to the attention of the jury, noting that she had also been found at the bottom of a flight of blood-spattered stairs. And that Peterson, who had stayed late at Ratliff’s after a family dinner, was the last known person to have seen her alive.
However, the new trailer (see above) suggests there was evidence tampering and other cover-ups.
Peterson was eventually found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. However, the novelist was released in 2011 and granted a new trial after it was discovered that a witness for the prosecution lied on the stand. In 2017, he pleaded guilty to manslaughter (although he maintains his innocence) to stay out of jail.
Now, the story of The Staircase returns to Netflix with three new episodes from de Lestrade covering the events since his original conviction, which sees Peterson (now a grandfather) debating whether he should take a retrial and risk being put back behind bars, even if there is a chance he’ll be found innocent, or if he should take an Alford plea deal.
The latter option would allow him to maintain his innocence, while still admitting the state has enough evidence to convict him, and works effectively as a guilty plea – but, with the offer of a pleading to a lesser charge (manslaughter) Peterson can go free with time served.
“In the beginning it was more courtroom drama,” de Lestrade said during a panel at the Tribeca Film Festival, “but the family’s struggles became more important as the story unfolded.
“We could show the aftermath of when the justice system destroys a family and consequences for each member of the family; it’s very huge.”
He added: “The purpose has never been to look for the truth, or to look for what happened that night. It was just to look at the way the justice system would treat the case, and it took 17 years.”
The Netflix-commissioned series will launch globally on 8 June.