The Staircase (Jean-Xavier de Lestrade)

Promotional image for The Staircase, from NetflixI finished watching the documentary The Staircase on Netflix last night. It follows Michael Peterson and his defense team as he goes to trial for the murder of his wife Kathleen Peterson. The original 9 episodes were released in 2003 cover events up to his imprisonment. Another 3 episodes were commissioned and released in 2016 covering his appeal for a new trial, based on one of the prosecution’s key witnesses turning out to be a fraud. And a final episode was produced by Netflix to show the circumstances of him taking an Alford plea.

It’s a long documentary with a lot of padding – Peterson loves to hear himself talk, so there are lengthy scenes of him giving his opinion on Justice, Love and the Meaning of Life. The final 4 episodes are particularly flabby. I really didn’t need the photo montages, I would have preferred these to be two episodes at most.

It’s also a very one-sided documentary. The director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, wanted to have one film crew follow Michael and the defense and another crew to follow the prosecution. But a few months in the prosecution decided they didn’t want to participate, so we lose that perspective.

But LeStrade should have made more of an effort to include information about the prosecution case. Even if he couldn’t film their meetings or work, he could have included the prosecution sections of the trial. There were 9 episodes to play with, he could have cut all the bits of Peterson smoking a pipe. As it is, the story fails to include key aspects such as the financial situation of the Petersons (in debt and reliant on Kathleen’s income during the end of the dot-com boom) and allegations of Peterson’s volatile temper. He got permission to film Kathleen’s sisters, but he didn’t interview them. It seems lazy to me.

In addition to giving a lot of time to Peterson’s (natural) self-interest, it ends up giving a lot of weight to the opinions of David Rudolf, Peterson’s lawyer. He’s the kind of guy who states opinions as facts, and doesn’t hesitate to make his client happy by joining in on trash talk of their opposition. Several times Rudolf convinced himself he knew how people would react, then was shocked when they didn’t behave as he predicted:

  • He felt the suggested murder weapon (a blowpoke, no I’d never heard of those before either) was central to the prosecution’s case. He looked genuinely surprised when no-one in the media seemed to care about it and were more interested in other evidence. And when he produced the blowpoke in court and no-one was impressed he was very put out. From the tiny bit of detail from the prosecution shown on-screen, and from reading elsewhere, it seems that the prosecution only suggested it as a possible murder weapon. It was never a key part of their case.
  • He’s shocked that the jury would think there were problems in the marriage because Mike was hiring hookers. All the friends and family he spoke to said it was a happy marriage! He says he doesn’t understand why it’s relevant.
  • He convinced Mike that the DA would offer an Alford plea deal because without Deaver the blood spatter expert there would be no case to answer. When the DA said no, they were going to go to trial, Rudolf blamed Candace for influencing him rather than admit he was mistaken. It also showed that having abandoned his fixation on the blowpoke, he had moved on to Deaver as the main cause of him losing the trial. But jury interviews afterwards showed they were more interested in the extent of the injuries and the inconsistencies in the 911 call than the blood spatter evidence. Those would still work in favour of the DA’s case even if other evidence was excluded.
  • He was also upset that the judge ordered a new trial after it was discovered that the evidence boxes hadn’t been stored properly. But as the prosecution pointed out, Mike’s claim of Kathleen dying from a fall did not rely on DNA evidence so the boxes of gear would not be relevant anyway. They still had the medical examiner’s evidence and the financial evidence even if Brad the hooker and the whole Ratliff death in Germany were excluded.

Which does raise the question of why Rudolf never tried an intruder theory on the jury? It would be easy to say that when Mike saw his wife’s body he immediately thought it was a fall but now the shock is over he wonders if it was an intruder after all. The obvious guess is that they knew there would not be any evidence of an intruder, only of Mike in the house.  But they can’t turn around 10 years later and complain that they can’t do tests on the evidence anymore. The time for that was in the immediate aftermath, not after an appeal.

Ultimately, Rudolf seems like the kind of guy who gets tunnel vision. And the film crew got drawn into that atmosphere of only looking at what they wanted to see.

Another potential source of bias is that Sophie Brunet, the editor, was romantically involved with Mike during some part of the filming. Lestrade says that didn’t affect the film but I really don’t see how it could be avoided.

I do agree with the defense team that the prosecution was hoping to trigger homophobia without directly calling for it. But they did extensive jury screening to prevent Mike’s bisexuality from being an issue, which seems fair to me. And honestly, there’s not a good way to convince people that someone making appointments with sex workers while his wife is at work is a good husband who cares about her feelings. That the sex workers were men is not as relevant as the dishonesty and selfishness. It’s lucky for Mike that Rudolf never puts his clients on the stand, because he sounded so unbelievable when he initially said “oh yeah, Kathleen knew, we had an arrangement”. And then in the final episode he admits that he never told her about even the bisexuality, let alone the infidelity.

On the positive side, the doco shows a lot of the process of a defense team, which I found really interesting. Preparing their arguments, discussing jury selection and traveling to Germany were all really interesting parts of the series and I’m glad to have seen them.

And another plus is that it doesn’t spend much time on the ridiculous owl theory. But Netflix has put a short clip on it up on their site, called The Owl Theory, if you want the LeStrade take on it.

Heaps of people have watched The Staircase and decided that Mike is innocent. I can’t agree with them, but what else are they supposed to think when Lestrade only presents the opinions of a small group of people and ignores anyone who contradicts them? If it’s meant to be a documentary about the failures of the American justice system, I would have expected to see  more about the standard processes, maybe some interviews with the SBI now that they’ve gotten rid of Deaver, and neutral legal experts.

Oh well. I’ll write up another post to explain why I think Peterson is guilty, and then maybe I’ll watch the Forensic Files episode on this case as well.

Update 10th July 2018

Just adding a few links to good articles I’ve read about this documentary:


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