Police responded to Michael Peterson’s report that his wife fell down the stairs upon entering a truly gruesome scene.
They found floors, stairs and walls… and the bloody corpse of Kathleen Peterson. Michael was arrested, charged, and found guilty of murder.
The story has so many twists and turns, it seems too far-fetched even by Hollywood standards. But that hasn’t stopped Tinseltown from coming up with its own treatment.
The Sky mini-series 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 he did it? Is it an insurance scam? Trying to silence Kathleen when she finds out he’s bisexual? Was that an accident? Or, oddly enough, was the real culprit a trespassing owl?
HBO Max / WarnerMedia Direct)
We sift through the facts and examine the evidence with the help of Michael’s defense attorney, David Rudolf, the author of a compelling book about the great blunders of American justice.
Kathleen is a well-paid telecommunications executive while Vietnamese vet Michael is a novelist. He was also involved in local politics and wrote an article that was often critical of Durham officials and police.
The family home is a lavish colonial mansion. Michael has two sons from his first marriage as well as two daughters he adopted with his ex-wife Patty. Kathleen has a daughter from her first marriage – Caitlin Atwater.
At first, all five children supported Michael against the accusations. But then Caitlin changed her mind after discovering the male escort emails and after reading the autopsy report.
The revelations about her bisexuality also turned Kathleen’s sister Candace Zamparini against him, saying she didn’t know who Michael Peterson was anymore.
After renting the movie American Sweethearts, Michael and Kathleen settle down for an evening of movies and drinking.
Kathleen’s work colleague called after 11 p.m. to discuss a presentation for the next day.
According to Michael, the couple finished their second bottle of wine by their poolside. Kathleen then went inside and was outside for another 45 minutes before finding her wife at the foot of their stairs.
He can be heard in a phone recording desperately pleading with emergency services to “come quickly”. He told the operator: “My wife had an accident. She fell down the stairs. She is still breathing.”
Arriving within minutes, paramedics entered a bloodbath.
Michael insists she must have fallen down the stairs after drinking too much and taking Valium. But the police immediately suspected bad game.
They searched the family’s computer and found email exchanges between Michael and several male escorts. Then he was arrested.
An autopsy revealed that Kathleen died of blood loss. The wound on her head is “suitable for blows from a blunt instrument”.
But defense attorney Rudolf said: “Kathleen didn’t have the injuries that someone being hit with a blunt object would have. She didn’t have a skull fracture or a brain bleed.”
Her blood alcohol level was just below the driving limit. No murder weapons were found.
The defense alleges that Kathleen slipped after a night of drinking, hit her head under the stairs, rushed forward, covered in blood, and hit her head again.
The defense’s forensic expert said the splashes of blood were consistent with a fall. The accuser claimed that they were evidence of a beating. No sign of an intruder.
A hair was found on the body along with hairs that had been pulled out. A neighbor of the Petersons thinks Kathleen may have been attacked by a local owl, many of which are perched.
Such an attack would account for the head cuts.
Rudolf recalls: “I first heard of this when I was preparing the closing statement and it was too late to do anything. It explained all the evidence a lot more convincingly than the theory. of the prosecution”.
The couple has more than $142,000 in debt in 20 different accounts… and Kathleen has a $1.4 million life insurance policy.
In addition to the money motive, police also believe that on the night of her death, Kathleen may have discovered the emails Michael sent to the male escorts.
They assumed it was a discovery that led to him killing her.
Defense lawyer Rudolf insisted his client had no motive to kill Kathleen.
The policy was enacted before she met Michael and designated her first husband, Fred, as the beneficiary, he said. And she had a couple of $100,000 deposits in her deferred account, he said. I should have no financial stress.”
He also believes that in today’s more liberal society, bisexuality won’t be as big of a deal as it was 20 years ago.
Rudolf said: “If the case went to trial today, I’m not even sure the prosecution would state his bisexual motives.”
He added: “Michael claims Kathleen knows about his bisexuality and accepts it.”
Test and then
Peterson was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Rudolf said of the 2003 ruling: “I cannot understand how the jury could have been without a reasonable doubt.
“When I compare objective truth to emotional truth, that’s not really a close call.
Michael was serving an eight-year sentence when a judge ruled that a prosecution witness had given false evidence and ordered a retrial.
Michael was released after giving a plea to Alford – meaning he was convicted at the time he was already serving his sentence while admitting no guilt.
He returned to Durham, where he lived quietly in a two-bed apartment. Now 78 years old, he has written two books about the trial with proceeds going to charity.
Explaining why Michael pleaded guilty to The Alford, Rudolf said: “He was never guilty, he admitted no guilt. He doesn’t feel like he’s getting a fair trial. “
But is Michael the one to blame? More than 20 years after Kathleen’s death, the question mark is still there.
The Staircase is available on Sky and NOW TV. You can buy American Injustice by David Rudolf.
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https://www.mirror.co.uk/tv/tv-news/truth-staircase-murder-exposed-deadly-26886131 The truth about the Staircase murder is exposed - fatal owl or husband killer