Below are spoilers for the documentary “The Staircase” and the HBO Max series.
In the early hours of December 9, 2001, novelist Michael Peterson called 911 in tears and panic: He had found his wife Kathleen unconscious and bloodied at the foot of a staircase in their Durham, North Carolina home. Her explanation to the police officers, that she had been drinking and had probably taken a sleeping pill and fallen, was considered unconvincing; he was arrested for his murder shortly after.
The resulting case would become the subject of one of the genre-defining true crime documentaries: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s “The Staircase.” The eight-part series debuted in France in 2004 and the United States in 2005, then came to Netflix in 2013 with additional episodes shot by de Lestrade in the years after the initial case. It caused viewers even as he ended with the conclusion that, well, we can never really know if Michael did it or not.
Now, the case is being dramatized on HBO Max as a miniseries titled, once again, “The Staircase.” Released May 5, it stars Colin Firth as Michael, Toni Collette as Kathleen, Michael Stuhlbarg as defense attorney David Rudolf, and Parker Posey as prosecutor Freda Black.
True-crime author Aphrodite Jones, who covered the case, hasn’t seen the new series, but thinks it’s unlikely to break into any new ground if she keeps up with the documentary. “It’s not what [de Lestrade] included, is what was not included,” Jones, whose 2004 book “A Perfect Husband” describes the case and became the basis for the 2007 Lifetime movie “The Staircase Murders,” starring Treat Williams, told The Post.
“The ‘Staircase’ documentary is a vehicle for Michael Peterson,” Jones said.
A novelist couldn’t have written Peterson’s story better, full of outrageous twists and turns as it is. In court and on camera, Peterson initially portrayed his marriage to Kathleen as enormously happy, but prosecutors uncovered evidence that he had been secretly dating men and that the couple had argued about it shortly before Peterson’s death. the; they also found a trove of male pornography on his laptop, which they used to further analyze his claims of being happy with the marriage. Kathleen also had a $1.4 million life insurance policy, which would be paid out to Michael in the event of her death.
And that was just the tip of the iceberg. As the case progressed, more shocking facts would emerge. Chief among them: a close friend of Peterson’s, Elizabeth Ratliff, was also found dead at the bottom of a staircase in 1985. Peterson subsequently ended up raising Ratliff’s young daughters, along with their two sons, as Peterson’s husband Ratliff had previously died.
And then there was the owl theory, introduced at the end of the documentary. Attorney Larry Pollard, who was not on the case but was Peterson’s neighbor, floated this idea. He suggested that Kathleen had been the victim of an attack by a barred owl, which swooped down and dug its claws into her scalp; she had entered after struggling, drunk, and had fallen. Three small feathers were found in the strands of hair on Kathleen’s hand, and Pollard said lacerations on her scalp were consistent with owl talons. And as the Audubon Society noted, “An owl strike can definitely cause blunt force trauma. Additionally, birds of prey have been known to swoop bombs at humans when threatened, almost always aiming at the head.”
Jones isn’t buying that. “If she had been attacked by an owl, she would have been screaming like crazy,” she said. “And they say that because there was a fountain in the pool that he [while sitting outside, as he claimed] wouldn’t you listen? The fact that people want to believe that is maddening.” What’s more, she said, Kathleen’s feathers were probably from a pillow.
Furthermore, Jones said, a substantial amount of damning evidence was never included in the documentary. “She had a crushed hyoid bone, which is evidence of strangulation. His hands and arms had bruises, but not his legs,” suggesting evidence of a struggle. “A bloody shoe print was found on the back of his sweatpants, which was a match to Peterson’s shoe. We know that she stepped on her blood and stepped on it.
“The other thing is the red neurons,” Jones continued. “Red neurons were present in his brain when the autopsy was performed. That means decreased blood flow to the brain, and it takes hours for that to happen. So what we’re really looking at here is someone who allowed his wife to bleed out on the floor for hours before calling 911.”
At least one person was swayed by the physical evidence: Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin, who had initially supported Peterson’s claims of innocence, along with her children. Caitlin changed her mind after seeing the autopsy report and ended up siding with the prosecution.
In 2003, Peterson was found guilty at the initial trial. But after eight years in prison, he was released after a key witness was found to have given misleading testimony. In 2017, Peterson entered a guilty plea for Alford, admitting without admitting guilt that a trial had found enough evidence to convict him, and he was released on time already served.
The actors of the new “Ladder” seem content to accept the ambiguities of the case. “I left with less opinion of what happened than when I came in,” Sophie Turner, who plays Ratliff’s daughter Margaret, told ABC, with Firth echoing her sentiment. “If it’s not clear, play it unclear,” Firth said. “He resists clarity. And it speaks to our desire for clarity. we want it We want certainty. We found the doubt uncomfortable.”
Jones is not satisfied with that. “There is no doubt that [Peterson] he did,” he said. “If he had to tell this story, we would know that he did it.”