The Reluctant Face of True Crime

Michael Peterson refuses to watch The Staircase.

Michael Peterson
Raleigh News & Observer / Getty; The Atlantic

If you’ve heard of Michael Peterson, you probably have a strong opinion about whether or not he murdered his wife, Kathleen, who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their Durham, North Carolina, home on December 9, 2001. Nearly 16,000 people were murdered that year, according to the FBI, and few of those cases gained much attention at the time—nor do they attract much discussion two decades on. Peterson’s case, by contrast, has demonstrated a strange staying power, becoming a poster child for a new golden age—or dark age, depending on one’s view—of true-crime content.

Peterson’s initial trial drew national interest, thanks in part to its unusual details: a well-to-do novelist, former mayoral candidate, and rabble-rousing columnist for the Durham Herald-Sun; a sprawling mansion; revelations about Michael Peterson’s bisexuality; and the death of a family friend under somewhat similar circumstances in Germany in 1985. Peterson maintained—and maintains—his innocence, but in 2003, he was convicted and sentenced to life without parole.

For most murder cases, that’s the end of the story, but this one was only getting started. In 2004, the documentary filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade released an acclaimed miniseries called The Staircase, produced while he was embedded with Peterson’s defense team. In prison, Peterson attracted a group of passionate advocates, who insisted he was innocent and had been railroaded. One theory held that Kathleen had not fallen accidentally or been murdered by Michael, but had been attacked by an owl. No side was especially easy to credit: Peterson was, on the one hand, an admitted liar and (it must be said) an odd and difficult person; the Durham district attorney’s office was, on the other, horribly dysfunctional, and the blood-spatter analysis of the sort that helped convict him has been widely debunked. Peterson exhausted appeals, but after a forensic analyst involved in his case was discredited, he was released and granted a new trial. In 2017, he entered an Alford plea—an agreement in which a defendant acknowledges that sufficient evidence exists to convict him, while maintaining his innocence—in exchange for not having to serve more prison time.

The case has since become more famous than ever. In 2018, Netflix aired The Staircase, along with new episodes Lestrade had filmed, and the case garnered attention once again. This year, HBO released a fictionalized version of The Staircase, using the same title, starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette. Few murder cases have spawned such lengthy afterlives and frequent reexaminations. Perhaps only the trials of Jeffrey MacDonald (another Vietnam veteran tried in North Carolina) for killing his wife and children—which have intrigued talents including Joe McGinniss, Janet Malcolm, Errol Morris, and Gene Weingarten—compare.

Peterson has not often spoken with the press over the years, but he has emerged recently to blast the HBO miniseries (and Lestrade for selling the rights to it), and for a recent appearance with his defense lawyers, David Rudolf and Sonya Pfeiffer, on a podcast devoted to wrongful convictions. I recently spoke with him as well. I did not imagine that a short interview would be a place to adjudicate his guilt or innocence, though I have my own suspicions. But I was curious to hear his views on the true-crime boom and what it’s like for so many people you’ve never met to have such powerful feelings about you.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

David A. Graham: Why did you agree to let Jean-Xaxier de Lestrade have so much access? Weren’t you worried about how the press can spin narratives?

Michael Peterson: I watched Murder on a Sunday Morning, Jean’s film, and I thought that was very good, so I trusted him. And I told him at the very beginning, “Look, I didn’t do it.” He said, “I don’t know if you did it or not, but what we show is going to be how it comes out.” I said, “Fine. You’ll never believe I’m guilty.” But as far as The News & Observer, oh my God, they jumped on me immediately. And the Herald-Sun. They did everything that they could to twist the narrative, to make me guilty, to put me in a bad light. In my columns, I had given then–District Attorney Jim Hardin the Stupid Award several times. It must have had an impact. God, the police? Oh Jesus, I was on them all the time. So it was a matter of, I think, schadenfreude: Oh, here’s a chance, maybe—something happened. Maybe we can turn this to our benefit. And that is exactly what happened. I never trusted the media. Never, never, never. Jean was different. He’s from France; he seemed very objective. He was not against me. He was not for me. He was just filming, which is what I wanted.

Graham: I want to understand the experience of being at the center of a case like this, where it becomes an international story and still is, more than two decades later. When did you understand how big it was going to be?

Peterson: I did not know at the beginning. We were just absorbed with our own tragedy. Kathleen is dead; they’re trying to get me. The girls and boy have already lost Kathleen and they’re possibly going to lose me. So we were focused on that. It was much later, well into the prison years, when The Staircase came out. When you are in prison, you are cut off from almost everything, and so I did not know until much later. And then of course, when Jean sold his story, our story, to HBO, then it took on another life, which has just been disgusting.

Graham: How do you reconcile the fact that this series was so important in getting you out of prison and getting a new trial, but at the same time forces you into the public eye?

Peterson: I was not interested in being in the public eye. I was interested in getting out of prison. When it hit Netflix, I think we’d been warned, “This is going to be big. Get off social media.” But since I wasn’t on it anyway, it didn’t make any difference. I was kind of oblivious to what happened. I knew it was big, but nowhere near as big as it really turned out. You’re talking about sex, money, and murder. Crime is an undeniable hook for a lot of people. [My daughter] Margaret was telling me in L.A. at the time they had billboards up: “Did he do it?” The kids were much more aware of what was going on than I was. I was focused on getting out of prison, living my life, and writing books. They took it much, much, much harder and worse than I did. I was in prison, so I didn’t have to live with what was going on.

Graham: It must be very strange to have these things out there and have to decide whether you want to see them.

Peterson: To this day, I have not seen The Staircase. I didn’t see the beginning—I couldn’t, because I was in prison—the ones that were filmed. The ones when I got out, of course I was aware of. I’m old. You don’t care after a while, and that’s pretty much what happened. The main thing that bothered me all the time was the effect this was having on my children.

Graham: This has always been true to an extent, like the Jeffrey MacDonald case, but it feels especially true in the streaming world. You have these murder cases that become entertainment, and the actual cases become alienated from the real facts. I’m curious how you feel about seeing this idea of murder becoming something people can consume for leisure.

Peterson: Well, it bothers me that people become so obsessed with this, but I’m in a different place. I know what happened—no, I don’t know. I know I didn’t do it, but I don’t know exactly what happened. I’m trying to live my own life. And it has been easier for me to do that than it has for my children, because they’re younger.

Graham: You were pretty upset about the HBO series as I understand it, not on the basis of watching it. What about it upset you?

Peterson: Oh Christ, that thing was so awful. It’s just utter bullshit. Jean sold our story, my story, without my knowledge or any understanding of this to HBO. I saw that trailer; that’s all I could take. That trailer of us fighting—everybody’s screaming at one another, which never, ever happened. That just became entertainment. That’s taking sex, money, and murder to the tenth degree. What they did was to take our life, real people—I don’t care about me, but my children—and build stories about them; they’re fighting one another. It’s just totally unconscionable, and unethical—taking real people and distorting their lives. Jean didn’t do that in the documentary. Here we are, you can see. But then you get actors: Patrick Schwarzenegger playing my son, Todd; Juliette Binoche playing my daughter Sophie. It should never—I mean, First Amendment—but to take my children and distort their lives for millions to see. They haven’t watched. They couldn’t watch that. Why would they watch that?

I watched Spencer, about Diana. Utter bullshit, again, but it was sympathetic to Diana, played in a nice way, to appeal to people, because Diana was an appealing character, but to take ourselves and my children, who are not public figures, and now they are. I’m Colin Firth in people's eyes. My children are the actors and actresses. And that’s just wrong. It’s just totally wrong.

Graham: In the opposite direction from people untethering these stories from your life, you get people who have never met you who are obsessed with you being guilty or obsessed with you being innocent. How do you react when people you’ve never met are so obsessed with you and feel such buy-in to things that happened in your life?

Peterson: Mostly I don’t pay any attention to them. And I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve only been confronted once. It’s a socioeconomic type of thing. When I first got out, Sophie and I went to Whole Foods. And oh my God, the people. One man moved his child away to protect him. When I went to Ross or Target, which are mostly Black in Durham, my God, I was hugged. “Oh, Mr. Peterson, wonderful to see you and I really wish you the best.” I’m not out there really in the public anyway, so I don’t have that much interaction with people. The rest of the time, you just have to ignore it. That’s something you learn in prison: You don’t make eye contact. I see them there and know that they’re over here, but I don’t want to look unless they come up, and basically, “Oh, Mr. Peterson, let me shake your hand.” Or the guy screaming, “I know you did it, you motherfucker.”

Graham: You were critical of police and prosecutors before the case. I’m wondering what you learned about the criminal-justice system that you did not understand before this case.

Peterson: I’ve always said that in the beginning, I was a rich white guy. Kathleen has been dead 21 years, but back then I was rich, and white, and when the cops arrested somebody? He’s guilty; you believe that. The cops shoot somebody, he probably deserved it. We don’t believe that anymore. We know, because of everything that’s happened. We know that they lie, they cheat, they shoot people, they distort the truth. Now we’re getting better. But not that much better. It’s still there.