It’s tempting to call the story of Michael Peterson a tragedy. Not just because his protestations of innocence and grief are pitiable (although they are), or because he summarizes his life with a quote from Romeo and Juliet, “All are punished” (although he does). It’s tempting because, in The Staircase, it’s Peterson—as opposed to his dead wife—who’s unfailingly presented as the victim. After a short news brief detailing how Kathleen Peterson’s body has been found in the couple’s mansion in Durham, North Carolina, the series begins in earnest with Peterson walking the camera crew around the home, describing the events on the evening of Kathleen’s death. He’s calm and detailed in his account of how the couple watched a movie, talked about their kids, and drank a first bottle of wine, followed by a second. Then, he explains, the couple went down to the pool on their property. In Peterson’s telling, Kathleen went upstairs to bed while he stayed by the pool with his wine. It was the last time he saw her alive.
What happened next was so bizarre, so unpredictable, that it made the Peterson murder investigation a national story. In a meta twist, the way the various revelations are parceled out in episodes of The Staircase has made the series a cultural touchstone in its own right, to the point where it was parodied in an NBC sitcom starring John Lithgow. Peterson maintained that Kathleen must have died by falling down a staircase, despite the fact that she had lacerations on her head that indicated she’d been struck. Investigators discovered that Peterson was bisexual and had recently arranged a meeting with a male escort. (Peterson insisted Kathleen knew about his bisexuality, and that their marriage was very happy, if unconventional.) Then, in the third episode, came an even more dramatic revelation: A female friend of Peterson and his first wife died in 1985 after falling down a staircase.
In 2001, the year Kathleen Peterson died, de Lestrade released Murder on a Sunday Morning, his Oscar-winning documentary about a 15-year-old wrongfully accused of murdering a tourist in Jacksonville, Florida. The Staircase was intended to be a companion piece about how the justice system functions for wealthy white men compared to black teenagers. The first eight episodes are characterized by a sense of confidence that the system will prevail. Peterson and his defense attorney David Rudolf spend a disproportionate amount of time laughing at Peterson’s absurd predicament and Rudolf’s astronomical bills. Peterson wonders, earnestly, how people navigate the legal system who don’t have millions of dollars at their disposal.
Rudolf’s blithe trust in American justice—not to mention the discovery of a crucial piece of evidence that has since immortalized the words blow poke—leads him to make a naïve and possibly fatal decision in his closing arguments. Rather than make a deliberate effort to prove that Peterson is innocent, he endeavors only to persuade the jury that he’s not guilty beyond reasonable doubt. When, after four days of deliberation, the jury finds Peterson guilty, Rudolf is almost more horrified than his client. “When the jury came in, it didn’t just disappoint me,” he tells the camera. “It shook the foundations of my beliefs … in the justice system, in human beings, in my own abilities, in my judgment, in my sense of reality.”