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“What About the Truth?” ‘Staircase’ Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade on the Michael Peterson Case

The director explains the process behind his updated documentary series, now streaming on Netflix

Netflix/Ringer illustration

After winning an Academy Award for his 2001 HBO documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade decided to tell the other side of the story. Murder had followed the story of Brenton Butler, a black, lower-class 15-year-old who had been wrongfully accused of murder; de Lestrade still wanted to examine the American criminal justice system, specifically in relation to murder trials, but this time through the lens of a white person, one wealthy enough to be able to afford the best defense possible. He and his team started reviewing cases that fit the criteria, and after 300 cases and about five months of research, they found Michael Peterson.

Peterson had been charged with the murder of his second wife, Kathleen, who was found dead by Peterson at the bottom of a staircase in their home in Durham, North Carolina. The case checked off all of de Lestrade’s boxes, but most importantly, Peterson and his lawyer, David Rudolf, were willing to give the documentarian full access. And there was just something off about the guy: “When [Michael] was talking about his love with Kathleen, I really could feel that sincerity,” de Lestrade says. “But, at the same time, there was a kind of mystery about this man. It was a strange feeling.”

De Lestrade’s instincts were right, and the murder trial ended up being a saga full of twists and turns—to the extent that it quickly became clear that a two-hour documentary film wasn’t going to be sufficient. In 2004, de Lestrade released the eight-part series The Staircase on the French network Canal+, inadvertently creating a genre of TV that wouldn’t explode for at least another decade.

Now, with the thirst for true crime series at an all-time high thanks to Serial, Making a Murderer, and most recently Wild Wild Country, The Staircase is returning to the air, with the original series hitting Netflix along with three new episodes that follow the Peterson case’s latest developments. Ahead of the Netflix release, de Lestrade and I talked about the true crime wave, Peterson’s original trial, and the complex, often disappointing nature of the justice system.

Why do you think there’s been such a boom in true crime documentary series?

There is a huge appetite to watch this kind of story. It’s real life and it’s real people, and it’s always amazing when you can follow the same characters for many years, and share a part of life with them. I think it’s the strongest emotions you can get, more than drama.

Was it always your plan to make The Staircase into a documentary series?

No, no, no. The plan was to do a two-hour documentary for HBO, but only after maybe six months or nine months, we had such good material and such huge access to the defense, to the courtroom, even to the prosecution at the beginning, that I started to think, “Oh, wow, two hours won’t be enough.”

But it’s really true—so much happens that you couldn’t have known about.

We had more than 800 hours of material. I really felt that [a series] was the only way to tell that story in the right way.

Why Michael Peterson? Why his case?

Michael Peterson was a strong character. I don’t know how to put a word on it, but I really had a feeling that we would discover something about him. Then, the second thing, I went to meet with [district attorneys] Jim Hardin and Freda Black. Maybe after 15 minutes of conversation, they said to me, “You know, Michael Peterson is evil.” I said, “Evil. Wow.” It’s not a usual case. It’s not just about physical evidence; it’s much more about who you are, what is your way of life, it’s about values, it’s about the kind of values you want to be found in your community.

You’re referring to the discovery of Peterson’s bisexuality?

I am 100 percent sure that Michael Peterson was prosecuted because they had found the gay porn stuff in his desk and in his computer and they said, “OK, we have the motive and we want to destroy this guy.” That was a very good starting point for a story because it was not just about who did it, it was much more about what kind of values you are defending in a community.

There’s a point in the original series, after it comes out that Peterson’s friend also died on a staircase in Germany, when Rudolf looks at the camera and says, “Your documentary just got a little better.” How did you roll with those bombshells—Germany, the blow poke discovery—as they continued to come out?

The game we had to play was to be there [as much as] we could be there. For example, it was a Sunday morning and we were in David Rudolf’s office doing an interview with him when Michael called him about the discovery of the blow poke. And he took the phone and looked at us and told us, “OK guys, there is something very important, you have to shut down the cameras, I [have to] speak to my client now.” And we told him, “David, it’s important, we are here, we don’t want to miss that.” It takes a lot to be there at the right moment, and I really wanted to shoot real life. It’s always a kind of cinema verite, and it’s always quite difficult to catch the best moments.

While The Staircase is about Peterson’s case, on a larger scale it’s about the justice system.

Of course, yes.

In the new episodes there’s this tension of “did the system work?” Where do you come down on that question?

Well, it’s very amazing because it took the justice system 15 years to give a final answer to that case. And what kind of answer is it? It’s a little bit absurd. Because you have someone who was [found] guilty but doesn’t want to say guilty, and can stand up in front of a journalist and say “I am innocent, I pled guilty only because the prosecution didn’t play fair.” OK, wow. And there’s a side that—Kathleen’s family, the sisters and the daughters—can say “Wow, we won because he pled guilty and it will be on record and he’s a felon.” It’s very tricky. And 15 years to get to that point? Wow.

And really, we still don’t know what actually happened.

What about the truth? What about the truth? Because what’s really amazing to me is that from day one, they never really looked toward the truth. What happened in that staircase to Kathleen Peterson? What happened to her? I have a feeling they didn’t really want to know. The police had a suspect, a very good suspect, and the case was closed.

Do you personally think Michael Peterson did it?

I don’t know. I really don’t know. I have no sure conviction. The only conviction I have is that [Michael] didn’t get the fair trial, and they really tried to get a conviction at any price. That’s really disturbing.

I’m amazed that Judge Hudson, after 15 years of hindsight, was willing to admit that he made decisions in the original trial that were prejudiced against Peterson.

At the end the judge says there’s reasonable doubt [that Peterson was guilty]. I think for everyone, when you look at this entire case, it’s a good lesson about what kind of system this justice system is. It’s very interesting.

“All are punished,” is how you end the new episodes.

Yes. Exactly.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.