20 Chilling Facts About Michael Peterson Trial and ‘The Staircase’

Michael Peterson, an American novelist and a criminal who is infamous for ‘The Staircase’ has many unknown facts about him and the incident that will shake you to your very core. But first let us tell you, for those who don’t know ‘The Staircase’ is not just another book which Michael Peterson wrote but it is that horrible real-life documentary on the author that shocked everyone. Let’s find out more about it.

The incident belongs to December 9, 2001, in Durham, North Carolina when one early morning, Michael Peterson called the police and informed them about the death of his wife which he found lifeless at the bottom of a staircase. Michael said that he was by the pool when it happened and when he entered the mansion he saw his wife Kathleen dead there.

Initially, everybody believed him but after looking at the evidence he became the prime suspect of the first-degree murder. And all the evidence pointed towards the fact that he is the one who murdered his wife and gave it the name of an accident. 

His legal fought the case and managed to get him a retrial. This was made possible because the key witness of the prosecution took some improper action. Michael Peterson also submitted the Alford plea later which states that the only reason he pleaded guilty was because of the strong evidence against him but he still wants to prove his innocence. 

Following that, he got freed and the case remained in dusty files for some time. Inspired by this incident Jean-Xavier de Lestrade made a documentary series named ‘The Staircase’. The extremely detailed series is totally based on the life of Peterson and they are also given access to the evidence, his personal life, the defense team, and everything else that they need to portray it on television. 

A riveting case like this must have stored some chilling facts and stories about it that could shock everyone and it does. The more you know about it the more shocked you will get. So get ready for this enthralling session of some chilling facts about Michael Peterson and ‘The Staircase’ that are listed below:

1. Their Antique House

Petersons had a huge mansion in Durham, North Carolina where this incident happened. The house covered an area of 9,500 square feet. The ravishing mentioned served as a prominent filming location for a very popular movie ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ in 1990 which was the theatre adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s infamous novel of the same name.

As soon as the shooting for the movie got completed, it was purchased by the PBS Television host and Scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. The host was a professor at Duke University at the moment.

Currently, the owner of the house is a psychic who purchased the house because he was unaware of the fact that someone was murdered here and also did not hear of the Peterson case. Must be a hell of a psychic.

2. Became a Subject Matter for Law School

The case of Peterson was taught in the Law School during the time and the lawyer who proposed this in his syllabus was none other than Peterson’s own neighbor, Thomas B. Metzgoff.

Metzgoff was a law professor at a Duke University during the time when Kathleen died at the hands of Michael Peterson. He taught his students the case study of ‘The Staircase’ because he believed that the documentary of Peterson’s case is a great material for demonstrating the defense mechanism of the criminal and how everything unfolds.

3. The Book Deal

If reports are to be believed then Michael Peterson at the time of his trial wrote a book that reveals his side of the story. He was already writing this book because he knew what was going to happen and he wanted to save his image by explaining why he did what he did. Explaining why he murdered his wife? Seriously? What was he thinking?

Anyway, the book was going to be published by Harper Collins but when the publisher got to know that he was found guilty of the murder, they said ‘No thanks’ and rescinded their offer.

4. Another Tragedy

The most shocking revelation in ‘The Staircase’ was that Michael Peterson was involved in another death of the person who died after falling from a staircase. The incident belongs to 1985 when Michael Peterson was friends with Elizabeth Ratliff along with his first wife Patricia. 

They were living in Germany at the time and Elizabeth also resided in her West Germany home. One day Elizabeth was found dead at the bottom of the staircase and later it was revealed that she had dinner with the Petersons a night before. And controversially, Michael Peterson was the last person to see her alive.

When Ratliff died, Michael adopted her two daughters. When he was being held guilty for the murder of Kathleen, it was only natural to bring this case up considering the series of events just fit right. The whole case was studied again but it was concluded that Ratliff’s death was a result of a homicide.

Well, all I can guess after this is that Michael Peterson took inspiration from this story to murder his first wife and later reported it as a homicide. Nice. What a brilliant thing to take inspiration from.

5. An Interview with The Judge

Judge Orlando Hudson was the one who presided over all the trials of Michael Peterson that includes his initial trial, the hearing of a new trial, and at last his Alford Plea hearing as shown in the documentary by French filmmaker de Lestrade.

The director interviews Judge Hudson for the details and also for his personal take on the case. The judge said that he is regretful for some aspects of the case and there are laws that protect the criminals to some extent and the eventual freedom of Peterson was proof of it.

Hudson tells de Lestrade, “There were things that I would have changed. I think, over time, the introduction of death in Germany was very prejudicial to the defendant. I thought that all the homosexual evidence—however it was used—would have been unduly prejudicial to the defense, and probably should not have come into evidence.”

Michael Peterson photographed at his apartment in Durham, NC Saturday, April 21, 2019.

6. The True Intentions of De Lestrade

Whenever a documentary is made on a murder investigation or some other kind of a crime or mystery, the filmmakers try to be the detectives for the case and the show is made entirely for the purpose of investigation and unraveling the mystery making it a detective show in the process but it was not the intension of De Lestrade who was the director of ‘The Staircase’.

A question and answer session was held during the last and final installment of the documentary in the year 2018 at the Tribeca Film Festival where de Lestrade shared something about his intentions.

He revealed, “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.”

7. Peterson’s Bisexuality

Everybody learned about the bisexuality of Michael Peterson during his murder trials. The prosecutors used to bring this up in the court a lot during his initial trials. The defense team saw this act as an irrelevant attempt to connect the case with Michael’s sexuality and since it was something very personal so it shouldn’t be talked about publicly. 

Apart from that, even Kathleen Peterson was completely aware of it and she was very supportive of his bisexuality so there was no point in bringing it up. But the defense team feared that this might sway unfairly in his trial against the jury. 

But something very interesting to note here was the fact that the place where all this happened, that is Durham County, North Carolina had a pretty progressive atmosphere and they were really supportive of his bisexuality. This was revealed by Metzgoff, his neighbor, and the filmmaker de Lestrade. 

However, after knowing this detail about his personal life, Candace Zamperini, who is Kathleen’s sister changed her side from supporting Michael Peterson in the case. 

8. Love Blossoms at Unexpected Places

When the filming of ‘The Staircase’ began initially, Michael Peterson and the editor for the documentary crew, Sophie Brunet started a relationship. Their relationship got serious and even the fact that she is dating a person who is convicted of his wife’s murder didn’t stop her. 

Their relationship lasted for 15 years and ran all through his first trial, his arrest then release his Alford plea. But their relationship was doomed to break as they split up in 2017 when Michael regained his freedom. Even after being a huge part of Michael’s life, it was never mentioned during ‘The Staircase’.

9. The Owl Theory

The die-hard fans of ‘The Staircase’ and the people who have been following the case closely must be aware of the ‘Owl Theory’. According to the Owl Theory, the cause of death of Kathleen was being attacked by an owl. It suggests that an owl attacked her when she was near the staircase and then she slipped while hitting her head on the steps.

An interesting part about this was, her post-mortem examination even traced the microscopic owl feathers in her hair. So what if it’s true? But the defense team for Michael Peterson did not use this theory for getting him freedom for some unknown reasons.

10. De Lestrade Views on Peterson

De Lestrade believes that Michael Peterson is innocent. Yes, you heard it right. The person who made a documentary on a controversial murder thinks that the man in question is not guilty of the crime that he is convicted of. 

In an interview with Vulture, he explained, “I am not saying that I think Michael Peterson is innocent. What happened that night is still a huge mystery. But during the five-month trial, his guilt was not proven to me.”

11. Working with the Teams

In the beginning when De Lestrade was working with both parties, the prosecution and the defense team for the case. He was also planning to have two different crews for the case. But after a few months, the prosecution stopped De Lestrade from working with them.

The behind this if they had interaction with him and the defense team of Michael Peterson, this could nullify the client privileges because they are in contact with a third party. The prosecution even asked the filmmaker to hand over the tapes that they recorded from the defense team and their conversations with Michael.

In order to avoid this interference, the lawyer for the case, David Rudolf suggested that the film crew should be hired as a part of the defense team because this way they will not be counted as a third party, and client privileges would still apply. And in this way, they will be able to avoid handing over the tapes.

12. Hiding the Footage

Despite their detailed planning and brilliant idea, the prosecution still asked De Lestrade to hand over the tapes of the recording from the defense team which he did not want to, so he used to ship the footage and recordings to Paris, France so that it could stay away from the prosecution as well as the DA.

13. The Other Shows

As we are already aware of the popularity of ‘The Staircase’ and Michael Peterson, it was only natural for the incident to be a part of more than one show. That is why along with the documentary by the French filmmaker, the case was also featured on true crime shows like American Justice, Dateline NBC, Forensic Files, and The New Detectives. Apart from this, the case also inspired an episode of Cold Case, which is a CBS police procedural drama. 

14. The Debt

During the time the murder of Kathleen happened, she was in enormous debt and was going through some serious problems concerning the money. Her debt turned the whole course of the story and the family was also turned upside down. As per the reports, they had $142,000 in debt.

This gave a new direction to the story because as Kathleen was the sole owner of their mansion in Durham which was quite luxurious and had $1.4 million life insurance policy in her name, so Michael could have killed Kathleen to claim the money from the life insurance as argued by the prosecution. 

15. Unemployment Issue

During the time of this incident, Kathleen was also reported to have some major job worries and feared that the company would fire her. She was working as a high-ranking executive for Nortel which is a Canadian-based telecommunication firm.

Though Nortel was a very successful company at a time it soon started getting destroyed after a major casualty of the dot-com crash. Kathleen was worried about her job because the company had already laid off 45,000 employees and she knew that by the end of the year, her job wouldn’t survive.

16. Man with a Military Past

As soon as Michael Peterson completed his graduation, he went on to join the US Department of Defense in West Germany and took a civilian job there. Later on, he also served as a marine during the Vietnam War. 

Inspired by this, the author wrote three novels that were war-themed and along with this he also co-authored in writing two military biographies. 

17. Lier Lier

Michael Peterson was found to be exaggerating a lot about himself a lot. He has also talked about his war experiences and claimed that one time he was injured by shrapnel but later it was found that the injury he had was because of a car accident which he himself admitted too.

Michael Peterson also claimed that he has received two purple hearts but during the failed mayoral bid in Durham in 1999, the local journalists found out that it was all a lie and he does not have any purple heart which is a military decoration award. 

18. Alford Plea

The Alford Plea proved to be a savior for Michael Peterson as it was because of the plea that made Michael serve a lot less time for his crime in prison and also led to his eventual freedom. The defense team urged Peterson to submit an Alford plea after he was released on bail and was waiting for his new trial.

The Alford Plea lets the criminal plead guilty in front of the jury and the court when the prosecution has enough evidence against the defender while he is still asserting his innocence. 

This plea was made a part of the law system as a result of a Supreme Court case in the USA from 1970 where the murderer in question submitted a coerced plea. Anyway. In the end, the plea made Michael Peterson serve a lot less for his manslaughter.

19. The Last Chance

After new revelations and new findings of the case was made, De Lestrade had to make a new installment of his documentary of The Staircase in 2012.  The final installment was named The Last Chance which featured the new trial.

Actually, the legal team for Peterson appeals to the court for a new trial after it was discovered that Duane Deaver, who was the bloodstain analyst and a key witness for the case of prosecution lied in front of the court ad gave misleading information and testimony. 

Initially, The Staircase was made as a single length documentary but as new revelations came into light; they released two new episodes on American Television. 

20. The Documentary King

Jean Xavier de Lestrade, the French Filmmaker who directed ‘The Staircase’ also directed a documentary named ‘Murder on a Sunday Morning’. The documentary was inspired by the case of Brenton Butler. Brenton was accused of the murder of a tourist in Florida in the year 2000.

It was revealed in the documentary that Butler admitted to the crime but his claims were coerced and he is still asserting his innocence. Later on, it was revealed that Butler actually is innocent and he did not commit the crime. The documentary by De Lestrade won the award of the Best Documentary feature and also the winner of 2001 Academy Awards. 

Conclusion

So these were all the chilling facts and interesting insights about the case of Michael Peterson and ‘The Staircase’. A twisted and complicated case that fascinated us all has many more shocking details to it that you will find in this article. The documentary that was made on the case by Jean Xavier de Lestrade proved to be very famous and successful because of the brilliant direction and execution of filmmaking.

Michael Peterson who is now 76 years old is serving his life imprisonment without parole but the fact that it took so many years to put the criminal behind the cage is also very disturbing. The Staircase will show you how the law system in America works more than it will show you the detective elements from the case which was ultimately the motive of De Lestrade.

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