Real-life mysteries often lack satisfying solutions, so it’s fitting that, in this golden age of true-crime documentary television, The Staircase—and its fascinating criminal case—have now both been resurrected.
Ahead of its time when it debuted on French (and then British and U.S.) TV in 2004-2005, French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s sprawling whodunit and legal thriller began as an eight-episode endeavor. Twice, however, it’s been revived: in 2013 with an additional two parts, and now via three new installments courtesy of Netflix. At 13 total chapters (all of them premiering on the streaming service on June 8), it’s a binge-watcher’s dream come true: an absorbing epic that echoes its own subject matter—at first intriguing, then suspenseful and infuriating, and finally wearying and depressing, given what it has to say about the possibility of attaining justice and truth.
The story, in its barest form, is a straightforward one. On Dec. 9, 2001, Vietnam veteran, novelist, and columnist Michael Peterson was enjoying an evening at his Durham, North Carolina, home with wife Kathleen, a corporate executive. According to Michael, after indulging in late drinks by the pool, Kathleen went inside, and when he followed a short while later, he found her lying in a pool of blood at the bottom of their staircase. Michael made a couple of frantic 911 calls in an effort to save her, but to no avail, and police immediately suspected—due to the large amount of blood spilled, and the multiple lacerations on her head—that Kathleen was the victim not of a tipsy fall or two (as Michael claimed), but of bludgeoning-to-death foul play.
Murder charges were subsequently brought by District Attorney Jim Hardin, and Michael hired as his defense counsel David Rudolf. Meanwhile, his family splintered into two camps: in his corner were his siblings, his two biological sons Clayton and Todd (from his first marriage), and his two adopted daughters, Margaret and Martha; against him were Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin and sisters Candace and Lori.
The Staircase’s coup is access: Within weeks of the indictment, de Lestrade was granted extensive opportunity to film Michael and his attorneys, as well as inside the courtroom. His fly-on-the-wall material, when coupled with copious archival footage, crime-scene photos, and videos, and interviews with the prosecution team, lends the series an almost unbelievable degree of you-are-there proximity, allowing viewers to follow the case as it unfolds—to the point that, in one late episode, a scene with Michael is interrupted by a crucial phone call from Rudolf that sends the saga in an unexpected direction. By shooting from the very start, and being welcomed into the home and strategy sessions of Michael and his defense team, de Lestrade is able to present a comprehensive view of not only Michael and his clan, but of the tactical issues and complications raised by such a legal scenario.
As it turns out, those were many, due to potentially damaging revelations that quickly emerged. The first was that, though he claimed his marriage to Kathleen was idyllic, Michael was bisexual, and, at the time of his wife’s death, he was engaged in online chats with male prostitutes he hoped to meet for sex—something he had done in the past. To prosecutors, that demonstrated that Michael was a liar, and suggested that Kathleen might have perished after confronting Michael about his conduct (since his email correspondence with an escort was accessible on his computer on the night of her demise). Equally damaging, Michael and first wife Patty’s close friend Elizabeth Ratliff—the mother of Michael’s adopted daughters Margaret and Martha—had died at the foot of a staircase when they’d all lived in Germany in the '80s. Elizabeth’s passing had originally been deemed a natural one, caused by a brain hemorrhage. However, in light of Kathleen’s fate, it was now used to imply that Michael might be something akin to a “stairway killer.”
The question of whether either of those bombshells should be admissible in court—or are just noise meant to prejudice a jury against Michael—are central to The Staircase, which slowly transforms into something more complex and expansive than merely a suspenseful account of Michael’s innocence or guilt. Miring itself in case details (involving blood spatter, a missing fireplace poker, the absence of brain injuries, and faulty scientific experiments and DNA lab testing), de Lestrade’s miniseries proves a moment-by-moment study of the problematic criminal judicial process. The nature of plea bargains, the argumentative angles a defense attorney must take, and judges and juries’ susceptibility to misleading and/or false expert testimony is all touched on throughout the show. Whether it’s hearing Rudolf explain how he’ll argue on behalf of his client while not squandering his “reasonable doubt” advantage, or watching him dissect in court the prosecution’s hypotheses—an increasingly persuasive undertaking—de Lestrade captures the multifaceted nightmare of Michael’s circumstances with thrilling clarity.
Considering that de Lestrade is mostly situated with Michael and his defenders, The Staircase is invariably weighted in his favor—a situation compounded by the fact that, the longer his ordeal goes on, the more likely it seems he wasn’t responsible for Kathleen’s tragic death. And by the time it picks up with Michael in 2011 (in Chapters 9 and 10, which aired in 2013), the series has just about forsaken any serious interest in the question of his culpability. Instead, in its final five-episode stretch run, it turns into an exposé about the lengths to which the state will go to win cases even when the facts contradict their suppositions; about the difficulty of convincing courts to recognize mistakes; and about how the legal system grinds everyone (defendants, family members, district attorneys, and defense lawyers) down to a nub, such that ascertaining definitive truth becomes less important than just escaping the process itself with some semblance of freedom and sanity intact.
Far more than just a riveting mystery about whether Michael Peterson is a killer, this expanded version of The Staircase is a warts-and-all portrait of the frustrating intricacies of the American judicial system, and the myriad infuriating and exhausting ways in which it inefficiently operates. Spanning 16 years, it’s a haunting story without comforting conclusions—except that in the end, to quote the Romeo and Juliet line that Michael says is his Shakespearean favorite, “Everyone is punish’d.”