Review of The Staircase on Netflix


This documentary covers the legal ordeal of Michael Peterson in the murder of his wife, Kathleen.  The case is portrayed as murky, highly questionable, with devious prosecutors that were out to get Peterson (why, we are never told.)  Peterson’s trial, and eventual guilty plea for manslaughter, is one of the most publicized trials in North Carolina in the last few decades.  It is presented as a rollercoaster of conspiracy, deception, and incompetence.

One must remember, this documentary comes in with a distinct agenda.  It is a selective narrative aimed at glorifying a suspected killer at the expense of the true victim.  Funding for this documentary was initially done by Michael Peterson.  As such, it glosses over some key elements of Peterson, only offering a one-sided perspective of the trial.  In some instances, it omits evidence presented in trial that further implicates Peterson in his wife’s death.

Conveniently left out of the series; Peterson’s wife had a 1.4 million dollar insurance policy – and that he had just told her that he had accumulated $145k in credit card debt.  Further, Kathleen was concerned about losing her job.  Peterson’s gravy train was over.  The film misrepresented the evidence about the blow-poke weapon – and that Peterson had ordered three of them just prior to the murder.  It skipped that the bloody footprint found on the victim was directly tied to Michael’s shoe.  The series never explained how, when he called 911 he claimed she was still alive, but when EMS arrived, the blood was long dried and that she had died much earlier.  The series neglected to mention that Michael deleted hundreds of files from his PC in an attempt to hide from investigators his financial motives for killing his wife (obstruction of justice.)  After allegedly consuming two bottles of wine, Kathleen’s alcohol level was low enough for her to drive legally, implying that Michael’s story of drinking and falling was staged.  Her fingerprints weren’t on the wine glass she allegedly used…but this too was omitted from the series.

As a true crime author I don’t accept what I see on TV as gospel.  Just from some cursory research on my part, I was left wondering what the film got right.  The show desperately tries to downplay the fact that Peterson was unfaithful and that he was bisexual and having affairs outside of his marriage – allowing Peterson to imply that his wife knew and was okay with his activities.  I will tell you, a much of how Peterson characterized his affairs with other men demonstrated he was being at least somewhat deceptive (thank you Stephan Lampley for your session on To Catch a Liar at Crimecon!) While I’m not an expert, I was shocked at how Peterson initially lied (on camera) about the affair, then when caught, tried to whitewash it.

Much like the Making of a Murderer, Netflix has put out a documentary that only tells one perspective, designed to slant viewers perceptions of a tragedy.  It is a show that starts with a premise and seeks to prove it, rather than tell the whole story.  Lost in this one is the victim, Kathleen.  Her sisters and one daughter seem concerned about learning the truth of what happened to her, but that is almost buried in 13 hours of slanted docudrama.  We are supposed to believe that Michael is the victim in this Shakespearean tragedy.

In looking at the whole of the documentary, it seems that Peterson’s defense team dropped the ball a few times.  Years later they argued that the evidence had not been stored right and couldn’t be tested for DNA.  They could have done that at the time of his original trial, before the evidence storage issue, and didn’t.  In fact, they personally mishandled that evidence during the trial.  They could have put up experts to refute the investigator Duane Deaver who was (post-trial) proven to have manipulated outcomes of tests in another case.  Note:  Deaver never was proven to have perjured himself during Peterson’s trial.  If his testimony was so damning, why not tear it apart during the trial?  Instead what we are given in the series is a shadowy group of investigators out to get an innocent man.

As a sidebar, I find it disturbing on the number of people that are willing to believe that investigators and prosecutors are deliberately manipulating data to wrongfully prosecute innocent people.  I have seen a lot of social media posts about other cases claiming vast conspiracies around various murders.  I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, but it should not be our default setting that all investigators have some sort of mysterious agenda. While travesties of justice happen, they are the exception – not the rule.  It strikes me odd that we are so willing to believe these tales.

I am not an expert, but I have seen a lot of crime scene photos as a researcher and author of true crime.  I’ve seen more murder photos than a “normal” person. The number of injuries that she had and the blood splatters I saw in the images are worse than some stabbing victims I have seen.  I find it difficult, if not impossible, to be create that amount of blood splatter on the walls with a fall down a flight of stairs.  Add in multiple motives, and I think the prosecution was not persecuting Peterson, as portrayed in the show, but rather doing their job and pursuing justice.

Peterson shows little to no remorse over the fact that one of his daughters has been ostracized by the family for thinking that he was guilty.  In many portions, this is a “woe is me,” show attempting to paint a murderer as a victim of a witch hunt by the authorities.  In reality, Michael Peterson had a book deal all lined up on the presumption he would be found innocent.  He was looking to profit from his wife’s death.

I had to force myself to the end of this series. It was so one-sided, it forced me to do some digging on my own into the case and what I found was that this series was a slanted and distorted piece of work at best.  If you watch it, do some research on your own so you get the whole story – please.

As a sidebar, I found it interesting that the producers glossed over the son, Clayton Peterson’s “brush with the law,” where he planted a bomb on campus in an effort to steal equipment for making fake ID’s.  Yeah, this is not your typical American family.

I give this two (barely) out of five stars.


One thought on “Review of The Staircase on Netflix

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s