The last time we saw Michael Peterson was in 2013. Documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and his crew had returned to Durham, North Carolina, two years prior to shoot two follow-up episodes to the French documentary series The Staircase. By that point, Peterson, a writer, had been in prison for eight years after being found guilty for the murder of his second wife, Kathleen Peterson. As seen in the original, eight-episode series, which aired in the U.S. in 2005, the jury was unconvinced that Kathleen’s death — and her injuries, namely the seven lacerations on the back and top of her head and the profuse blood loss — was an accident caused by a fall from a staircase in the Peterson home. Over a contentious 14 weeks, Peterson stood trial. While his defense, led by lawyer David Rudolf, argued that Michael and Kathleen were blissfully happy together, prosecution pointed to his extramarital affairs with male sex workers and asserted that Kathleen’s discovery of Michael’s bisexuality was his motive for killing her. When the defense argued that Michael had no history of violence, the prosecution referred to his violent fiction writing, and also unearthed the fact that an acquaintance of his had died under similar circumstances in Germany years prior. Finally, a blood splatter analyst named Duane Deaver testified that the evidence — the blood on the walls of the stairwell and on Michael’s and Kathleen’s clothes — proved that Michael had killed her. After days of deliberation, a jury convicted him of first-degree murder, and Peterson was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Lestrade returned in 2011, however, after a bombshell — Deaver had been fired from the State Bureau of Investigation after an independent audit found that he had falsely represented evidence in 34 cases. As Lestrade’s follow-up episodes documented, Peterson’s legal team filed for a retrial, citing Deaver’s malfeasance, and Judge Orlando Hudson granted the motion in December 2011. Peterson was released on bail bond, under the condition of house arrest, while he awaited another trial. The final glimpse of Peterson in those episodes was of a now-withered man at Kathleen’s grave, weighing whether he wanted to stand trial once again or take a plea deal and end the ordeal once and for all.
The three new episodes of The Staircase, which hit Netflix on Friday, return to the case in 2014, two years after that moment. Since Peterson’s release from prison, nothing has happened — he’s still on house arrest, and his retrial is still pending. The episodes go on to cover the next three years, as Peterson’s bond restrictions are loosened and he continues to fight for his freedom while everyone else tries to find closure and answers about what really happened the night Kathleen Peterson died.
The new installments don’t have any major twists — there’s no Germany incident falling out of the sky the way it did in the original series, nor does Peterson whisper “Killed them all, of course” into a mic like Robert Durst did in The Jinx. But the episodes do reveal certain things that may change the way you see the case, while also presenting a harsh look at the slowly churning wheels of the American criminal justice system. Here are the most important updates to the Peterson case provided by the new episodes of The Staircase.
Peterson Tries to Get His Case Dismissed
Unwilling to agree to a plea deal that would require him to admit guilt, Peterson and his defense team — which in 2014 was being led by attorney Mike Klinkosum after David Rudolf stepped down — prepare for a retrial.
Two more years pass, and in 2016, Klinkosum and his team find that much of the evidence from 2001 has been contaminated — boxes containing Kathleen’s clothes were disrupted by movers, evidence bags had been reopened and improperly resealed, or not even at all — meaning no new forensic testing could be done and that most of the evidence had been rendered inadmissible in a new trial. Most gallingly, though, the defense team discovers that SBI — the same bureau that employed Duane Deaver — never DNA-tested Kathleen’s clothes. Had they, Klinkosum’s second chair, Mary Jude Darrow, argues, they may not have found traces of Michael’s DNA, or might have found traces belonging to someone other than Michael, which would have poked holes in investigators’ hardline theory that Michael committed the act. Arguing that there was a due process violation, Peterson’s team moves for the case to be dismissed.
However, in November 2016, the motion is denied, as Judge Hudson rules that the burden to have Kathleen’s clothes tested for DNA fell on Michael’s original defense team, and that it was not an act of bad faith by the state. With the motion to dismiss the case denied, Peterson is left with the same options he had in 2014: either admit guilt as part of a plea deal, or take his chances with another trial.
The Ongoing Saga of the Blow Poke
In the original series, the missing blow poke is one of the keys to the case. During the trial, the prosecution argued that a fireplace tool given to the Petersons by Kathleen’s sister Candace Zamperini — which had not been found at the home — was likely the weapon Michael used to inflict Kathleen’s injuries. Lots of time was spent in court focusing on the missing blow poke — establishing its origins, having experts confirm that both its shape and weight indicated that it could be the murder weapon, questioning its disappearance.
One of the many bombshells of The Staircase, though, occurs just before the trial’s end, when one of Peterson’s sons discovers the blow poke sitting in their garage. The instrument is covered in spider webs, and forensic tests reveal that it had been untouched and unmoved for a considerable amount of time, ruling out the possibility that it could have been the murder weapon.
Perhaps the juiciest tidbit revealed in the new episodes of The Staircase centers on the blow poke. In the third new installment, Rudolf tells Peterson that he’s learned that not only did police officers find the blow poke when they first searched Peterson’s home in 2001, but that they moved it and photographed it, though they never provided those photos to the defense team. “They knew, back in June of 2002, that this whole blow poke theory was bullshit,” Rudolf says. And yet, the prosecution went forward with the insistence that Michael used the blow poke to murder Kathleen.
This new discovery doesn’t give us any big answers — just because the blow poke wasn’t the murder weapon doesn’t mean Peterson couldn’t have used myriad other objects — but it does shed light on the prosecution’s willingness to gloss over facts that delegitimized their arguments. Similar to how Duane Deaver worked to make his blood spatter analysis fit the theory that Peterson was guilty of murder, so, too, did the prosecution start with an idea and work backward. It’s still up for debate whether that idea was right or wrong, but it’s harder to argue that the investigators and prosecutors’ goal was finding the truth.
The Alford Plea
The North Carolina criminal justice system offers an alternative called an Alford plea, a sort of hybrid in which a defendant technically pleads guilty while still asserting their innocence. Early on in the new episodes of The Staircase, Michael Peterson is completely against giving an Alford plea, saying that he refuses to ever admit guilt in the death of his wife. The district attorney, meanwhile — feeling pressure from Kathleen’s family — refuses to agree to any deal in which Michael would not admit guilt. For years, the two sides are at a standstill.
Peterson’s sons and adopted daughters finally convince him to acquiesce, arguing that Peterson is too old and broken down to go through another years-long trial. They also question the value of going to trial again, arguing that having to say “guilty” is a small price to pay for closure and freedom, whereas the payoff of hearing the words “not guilty” isn’t worth the risk of having a jury side against Peterson once again. Because, as Rudolf points out, the DA would rather put the onus of Peterson’s exoneration on a jury than ever dismiss his case, Peterson finally puts his pride aside and agrees to an Alford plea to the reduced charge of manslaughter.
This is how the case ends, with Michael submitting an Alford plea and technically pleading guilty to manslaughter in Kathleen’s death, while maintaining his innocence. With the maximum sentence for manslaughter in North Carolina set at 86 months, and Peterson having already served 89 months after his murder conviction, Peterson is free.
It’s a resolution, but it’s not exactly satisfying for anyone. The new episodes of The Staircase end with Michael Peterson reading a line from Romeo & Juliet — “all are punished” — and it’s apt. If you think Peterson is guilty, the malfeasance that necessitated his release from prison and subsequent plea deal means that he had to spend only eight years locked away for the murder of Kathleen Peterson. Having served only a small fraction of his sentence, he’s now a free man. But if you doubt Peterson’s guilt, the outcome means that a possibly innocent man spent eight years of his life in prison, and now must spend the rest of his life with a manslaughter charge on his record. The case is closed, but no one wins. And perhaps most painfully for the families involved, the story ends without any clear answers about Kathleen’s death.
After viewing the new episodes, it’s still hard to believe that Michael Peterson, the only other person in the house at the time of Kathleen’s death, wasn’t responsible. It’s hard to believe the defense’s explanation that the lacerations on Kathleen’s head were not from a weapon, but from Kathleen attempting to get up after falling seven times, only to fall and hit her head again. It’s also hard to believe that Michael Peterson — a man who once literally wrote the words “like an animal who first tastes blood, so is a man who kills; he is forever disposed to that thirst” — isn’t hiding a darker side under the exterior of an aging, meek man.
But the Durham County DA royally screwed up in its prosecution of Peterson, misrepresenting evidence, stoking homophobia, and ignoring alternative theories. Michael Peterson being the one who killed Kathleen is the most logical explanation, but in their craven pursuit to prove that, the prosecution eliminated any chance at lasting justice. Or who knows, maybe an owl did it.
Judge Hudson’s Regrets
Two of the most crucial arguments in Peterson’s initial trial were over what information should be allowed to be presented to the jury. First, there was the question of Peterson’s bisexuality, and whether the prosecution should be allowed to point to it as a sign of the broken state of Michael and Kathleen’s marriage. Second was the discovery that a family friend and neighbor had also died on a staircase when Michael and his first wife were living in Germany in 1985. In the end, Judge Hudson ruled that both things could be entered into the trial — two huge victories for the prosecution.
With more than a decade of hindsight, Hudson talks at the end of The Staircase about admitting that information, and reveals that he may have some regrets. “Over the years, though, you can see, with time and more examination of the evidence that did come in, maybe it wasn’t without prejudice,” Hudson says. “There were things that I would have changed. I think, over time, the introduction of the 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.”
You can’t go back now, but it’s pretty easy to assume that without those two points, the jury would have come to a different decision.
Michael Peterson Is Still Really Creepy
“I’m planning my next one,” Peterson jokes to his daughter Margaret at the end of The Staircase. “I don’t wanna be forgotten.”
I just wanted to include this quote, because Michael Peterson is still an unnerving cypher, and it’s still impossible to tell what he did or didn’t do.