In 2001, North Carolinian Michael Peterson called 911, frantic at finding his wife Kathleen unconscious at the bottom of a staircase. He said she must have slipped and fallen after drinking wine and taking valium. To most, it probably seemed like a tragic accident.
Not to the local police. They decided the amount of blood on the stairs seemed suspicious and started digging. Whenever foul play is suspected, the victim’s spouse is a natural target for suspicion, and Michael had been the only other person home at the time.
Investigators discovered two interesting things about Michael, which were used against him at trial. First, he is bisexual and had been involved with men outside of his marriage. He says that Kathleen knew about this activity and accepted it. Prosecutors contended she had discovered it shortly before her death and confronted Michael about it.
The second discovery was that a close family friend had died in a suspiciously similar fashion to Kathleen Peterson. After she was found dead at the bottom of a staircase, the Petersons raised her daughters. Her body was exhumed and a new autopsy was performed in connection to Michael’s trial. Her death was ruled a homicide.
In 2003, Michael was convicted of beating his wife to death and sentenced to life in prison. Eight years later, however, a judge ruled that a prosecution witness had provided false and misleading testimony about bloodstain evidence. Since that evidence had been crucial to the state’s case, Michael was released to house arrest pending retrial.
Last year, Michael entered an Alford, or “no contest” plea in exchange for being sentenced to time served. He is now free but is considered guilty of his wife’s murder.
The Netflix documentary “The Staircase” takes no position on Michael’s guilt or innocence. Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s intent, he told Time magazine, was to paint a picture of how even white, relatively wealthy defendants are treated in our justice system.
While de Lestrade doesn’t know whether Michael Peterson is guilty, he thinks he didn’t get a fair trial. The police never considered any other suspects, and the director suspects that Michael’s bisexuality played a pivotal early role in the decision to prosecute him.
“Even when you have thousands of dollars to defend yourself and you have a smart lawyer, you have to get very lucky to get out,” he said. “And it took 15 years.”
An early version of “The Staircase” debuted in 2004. Two more episodes were added in 2013 after Michael was released pending retrial. Now after following the case for 15 years, three new episodes have been added to finish the story. The full documentary is available on Netflix now.