As someone who's been intrigued since childhood by true crime stories and forensics, I was transfixed by this magnificently crafted documentary when it premiered some years ago on the Sundance Channel. The sinuous way that the narrative unfolds, how starkly the characters on all sides come to reveal themselves, the mystery of what actually happened to Kathleen Peterson, the tragedy of three families torn asunder over two decades, and all of it framed by truly haunting original music...I often found myself gasping in amazement and appreciation. What a rare opportunity to be a fly on the wall, an insider regarding this extraordinary and deeply disturbing story! I remember starting out with a strong feeling of sympathy for the poor husband, Michael Peterson, and identification with the twin tragedies of losing a loved one and being unjustly accused.
Nonetheless, even though the film was clearly sympathetic to the defense - chapter titles like `Prosecution Trickery' and `A Weak Case' leave no doubt - and granted much more time to their arguments and concerns, a gut feeling began to emerge: neither Michael Peterson nor his story added up. How on earth could a fall down the stairs cause those injuries, or result in that much blood? And if it was an accident, why did he take off his shoes? Try to wipe the walls clean? Lie to 911 about Kathleen breathing when she had clearly been dead for some time? Lie to the EMTs about being in the house just prior to the fall and saying it must have happened when he just went out to the pool for a few minutes? Change his story for the detectives when he realized the evidence told a different tale? Despite extensive opportunities to provide a detailed explanation and make a strong case for reasonable doubt - including a computer-simulated multiple-fall scenario - the defense's hired guns failed to persuade, perhaps because Peterson's own comportment was often so damning.
Long after seeing `The Staircase', I realized I was still bugged by the case. I began to read more about the trial, look at the evidence...and was shocked to find a record almost completely different from the film! What director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade left on the cutting room floor was a towering mountain of irrefutable forensic evidence pointing to Peterson as a vicious, calculating killer. Just the blood spatter evidence alone would have been more than sufficient to show that this was murder, committed by Michael: spray patterns high on the walls indicated that a long, thin weapon with the victim's blood on it was whipped around in the stairwell; some of the spatter was from blows where the victim's head was nowhere near the steps, stairlift, or track; fine spatter from struck blows - not footsteps, say - found its way upward into the crotch of Michael Peterson's shorts, proving he stood over her, striking the top of her head; his bloody footprint was stamped onto her pants leg; there were layers of fresher blood on drier blood, with later impacts spraying an area of the wall that had already been wiped down in a furtive attempt to clean up. The blood evidence strongly suggests that Michael thought she was dead and already had attempted to alter the scene when she revived unexpectedly - probably while he was in the kitchen - prompting a second, fatal attack at the foot of the stairs.
`The Staircase' doesn't exactly relate how it was almost immediately obvious to investigators that the scene had been staged; that attempts had been made to hide the bloody trail to the kitchen; and that in all this blood there was not a footprint, fingerprint, or other sign of an intruder (one microscopic feather aside, no evidence of a killer owl, the defense team's latest Hail Mary assertion). Furthermore, the autopsy findings were replete with complex, time-dependent trauma you don't hear about in the film, including defensive wounds; facial lesions indicating a struggle; the lack of congruence between the scalp lacerations, the steps, and the stairlift; and the presence of `red neurons' in the brain, indicating that significant blood loss occurred by 12-12:30am at the latest, over two hours before Peterson's highly suspicious 911 calls starting at 2:41am. There was also a curious lack of significant bruising on the hips or legs - an absence highly unlikely in the multiple-falls-down-stairs scenario proposed by the defense but consistent with the two theorized rounds of head and upper body assault (which seem to have included some punches and throttling as well).
Basically, it appears Peterson failed to understand that the timeline of his staged scenario - he claimed at first that the fall had just happened, a short time before the 911 call - wouldn't hold up. Nor had he imagined that a forensic meteorologist would easily disprove his second story - that he sat alone by the pool between 1-2am, wearing little more than a tee shirt and shorts in 50 degree December weather, and only discovered Kathleen when he came inside. Like most calculating murderers, especially narcissistic ones, he underestimated the investigators' skill and insight. To their trained eyes there was a world of difference between Kathleen Peterson falling down the stairs and being beaten to death over a period of an hour or two.
Artful and compelling though `The Staircase' is, I have to think that Lestrade, director of the righteously superb `Murder On A Sunday Morning', used this case to advance a point of view familiar to those who know his work: that Peterson was a victim of bias, a grieving husband prosecuted by narrow-minded people who loathed his politics, were intimidated by his intelligence, resented his success, and aimed to exploit his bisexuality in court. The fact is that Lestrade has said as much in interviews since the film's release. There can be no denying that the prosecution did play the sex card for all it was worth, but perhaps it would have been malpractice to do otherwise: the defense's opening statement was that Michael & Kathleen had an almost storybook, `soulmate' kind of marriage, which his compulsive gay tomcatting at the Y (uncovered by the defense team's investigator) seemed to belie. And the lethal confrontation could well have been triggered by Kathleen stumbling across some of Michael's explicit emails to gay escort `Brad' when she surprised her husband by asking to use his computer late that evening and proceeded to use his email account to receive a work-related document from a colleague. So, the defendant's sexual behavior was highly relevant to both prosecution and defense, and the jury was spared some of the more incriminating parts.
Politically, Lestrade and I probably have alot in common, and his other films have argued powerfully for justice, but unfortunately `The Staircase' dons the blinders again and again. If the director had truly aspired to fairness, he would surely have given the prosecution a chance to show how powerful the financial motive was - they did this quite effectively at trial, right in front of Lestrade's cameras. The film also sidesteps the way the prosecution demonstrated that a serious marital rift had started to unfold the Friday evening before Kathleen's death, with Michael's Saturday email reference to an argument they had while out for dinner, followed by Peterson hastily deleting thousands of gay porno pics from his computer that afternoon, just hours before the fatal events. He didn't delete them all, though, and the forensic data expert's testimony left no doubt that Kathleen had been using Michael's computer - a rarity, according to other testimony - just minutes before the neurological evidence shows she started to lose massive amounts of blood.
Lestrade stated some time later in an interview that Michael wouldn't have been prosecuted if he hadn't been gay. There is indeed a great deal of cruel prejudice in this world, and not just in Durham. As regards the Peterson case, however, the director's assertion is unsupported by the facts, which strongly suggest otherwise. No experienced investigator coming upon that scene at Forest Hills could possibly have failed to realize in short order that this was a brutal, cold-blooded murder, staged to look like an accident. And then to learn that Michael Peterson had also been the last person to see Liz Ratliff alive before she ended up at the bottom of stairs drenched in blood, years earlier...of course he would be a strong suspect. Lestrade should know that every single juror who was interviewed later insisted that there was never any disagreement or doubt on the panel that a murder had been committed, and that physical evidence like the 'red neurons' and blood spatter were incontrovertible. And Lestrade to the contrary, the juror interviews I've read suggest that jury members were far from narrow-minded about Peterson's sexual orientation - what seems to have mattered most to them about the defendant was his duplicitous behavior. One comes away with the impression that the panel was relatively thoughtful and conscientious.
Frankly, from a forensic standpoint, the Peterson case turns out to have been alot more straightforward than most people, including many of the film's reviewers, seem to think. That suggests to me that this riveting but deceptively selective film has misled many of us. I'm reminded a little of Oliver Stone's shamelessly truthy `JFK', a fictional film masquerading as fact. 'JFK' purported to answer the riddle of Dallas but actually led viewers about as far from the truth as it was possible to go, meandering off into the byzantine, self-aggrandizing paranoia-realm of the thoroughly discredited Jim Garrison.
As with that film, `The Staircase''s tragic flaw stems from a brilliant but self-righteous director's blindness to his own prejudices. The result: an unforgettable film whose dishonesty makes for an irony I can't quite get out of my mind.