Police responding to Michael Peterson’s report that his wife had fallen down the stairs walked into a truly gruesome scene.
They found floors, stairs and walls stained with blood… and the bloodied corpse of Kathleen Peterson. Michael was arrested, charged and convicted of murder.
The story had so many twists and turns that it seemed far-fetched, even by Hollywood standards. But that didn’t stop Tinseltown from giving her their own treatment.
The Sky miniseries The Staircase stars Colin Firth as Michael and Toni Collette as Kathleen as they act out the events of that night, December 8, 2001, in Durham, North Carolina.
So did he? Was it an insurance scam? An attempt to silence Kathleen on her discovery of her bisexuality? Was it an accident? Or, oddly, was the real culprit an intruding owl?
HBO Max / Warner Media Direct)
We sift through the facts and examine the evidence with the help of Michael’s defense attorney, David Rudolf, author of a gripping book on major American miscarriages of justice.
Kathleen was a highly paid telecommunications manager while Vietnamese vet Michael was a novelist. He was also involved in local politics and wrote a newspaper column that was often critical of Durham officials and police.
The family home was a sumptuous colonial-style mansion. Michael had two sons from his first marriage as well as two daughters he adopted with his ex-wife Patty. Kathleen had a daughter from her first marriage – Caitlin Atwater.
At first, all five children supported Michael against the charges. But then Caitlin changed her mind after discovering the male escort’s emails and reading the autopsy report.
The bisexuality revelations also turned Kathleen’s sister, Candace Zamparini, against him, saying she had no idea who Michael Peterson was anymore.
The Night of…
After renting the movie American Sweethearts, Michael and Kathleen settled in for an evening of watching movies and drinking wine.
Kathleen’s work colleague called after 11 p.m. to discuss a presentation for the next day.
According to Michael, the couple drank their second bottle of wine by their pool. Kathleen then went inside and he stayed outside for another 45 minutes before finding his wife at the foot of their stairs.
He can be heard in a phone recording desperately pleading with the emergency services to “please come quick”. He told the operator, “My wife had an accident. She fell down the stairs. She is still breathing.
Arrived in a few minutes, the paramedics entered a bloodbath.
Michael claimed she must have fallen down the stairs after drinking too much and taking Valium. But the police immediately suspected foul play.
They searched the family computer and found email exchanges between Michael and several male escorts. He was then arrested.
The autopsy showed that Kathleen had died of blood loss. His head injuries were consistent with “blows from a blunt instrument”.
But defense attorney Rudolf says: “Kathleen didn’t sustain the injuries a person would have if beaten with a blunt object. She did not have a skull fracture or cerebral hemorrhage.
His blood alcohol level was just below the driving limit. No murder weapon was found.
The defense argued that Kathleen slipped after a night of drinking, hit her head at the bottom of the stairs, regained consciousness, slipped in her blood and hit her head again.
The defense forensic expert said the blood spatter was consistent with a fall. The prosecution claimed they were evidence of a beating. There was no sign of an intruder.
A feather was found on the body as well as strands of hair that had been pulled out. The Petersons’ neighbor suggested Kathleen could have been attacked by a barred owl, many of which roost locally.
Such an attack would explain the cuts to the head.
Rudolf recalls: “I first heard about this when I was preparing closing statements and it was too late to do anything. It explains all the evidence much more convincingly than the theory of charge.”
The couple had debts of more than $142,000 in 20 different accounts…and Kathleen had a $1.4 million life insurance policy.
In addition to the financial motive, police also believe that on the night of her death, Kathleen may have discovered emails that Michael had sent to male escorts.
It was a discovery, they claim, that led to his murder.
Defense attorney Rudolf insists his client had no motive to murder Kathleen.
He says: “The policy was issued before she even met Michael and named her first husband, Fred, as beneficiary. And she had multiple deposits of $100,000 in her deferred compensation account, so there was no financial pressure.”
He also believes that in today’s more liberal society, bisexuality wouldn’t be the big deal it was 20 years ago.
Rudolf says, “If the case went to trial today, I’m not even sure the prosecution would cite his bisexuality as a ground.
He adds, “Michael claims Kathleen was aware of his bisexuality and accepted it.”
The trial and after
Peterson was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life without parole.
Rudolf said of the 2003 verdict: “I couldn’t understand how the jury couldn’t have had a reasonable doubt.
“When I compare objective facts to emotional facts, it’s really not a close call. Emotional facts won out here.”
Michael had served eight years when a judge ruled that a prosecution witness had given misleading evidence and ordered a new trial.
Michael was released after pleading Alford – meaning he was given the time he had already served without admitting guilt.
He moved back to Durham where he lives quietly in a two-bed flat. Now 78, he has written two books about the trial, with proceeds going to charity.
Explaining why Michael accepted Alford’s plea, Rudolf said: “He was never guilty, he doesn’t admit his guilt. He doesn’t feel like he got a fair trial.
But was Michael to blame all along? More than 20 years after Kathleen’s death, the question mark remains.
The Staircase is on Sky and NOW TV. American Injustice by David Rudolf is available for purchase.
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