The “staircase murder” is widely considered one of the most bizarre and puzzling murder mysteries of all time. It has been featured in a 10-part docuseries, The Staircase, was made in 2004 and is now streaming on Netflix. The case was also featured on season 11 of Forensic Files in the episode “A Novel Idea”, the Dateline episode “Reversal of Fortune” and subsequently the Dateline episode “Back Down the Staircase“.
Now HBO is showing an 8-episode series on HBO Max, The Staircase, which is a fictionalized version of the case. Colin Firth stars as Michael Peterson with Sophie Turner, Toni Collette, and Parker Posey also appearing.
Here are the actual facts of the case:
Michael Peterson was a former captain in the U.S. Marine Corps who lied about having received various military honors while running for mayor of Durham, NC in 1999. Peterson wrote three novels about the Vietnam war along with two other war themed books he was a co-writer on. He also worked as a columnist for the Herald-Sun in Durham. While he was there he became known for criticizing Durham police and Durham County District Attorney James Hardin Jr. This is the same man who later personally prosecuted Peterson, which seems extremely suspicious.
Michael’s first marriage was to an elementary teacher named Patricia Sue with whom he had two children, Clayton and Todd. The family lived in Germany for a time and became close friends with another family, the Ratliffs, which consisted of a couple, Elizabeth and George Ratliff, and their children, Margaret and Martha. When George Ratliff died, the families became even closer. When Elizabeth Ratliff died, the Petersons took in the Ratliff children. When Patricia and Michael divorced in 1987, Margaret and Martha (and later Clayton and Todd) lived with Michael in Durham.
In 1989 Michael moved in with Kathleen Atwater, a successful Telecom executive and the couple married in 1997. They lived as a family of seven, with Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin joining Michael’s two birth children and two adopted children.
On December 9, 2001 Michael Peterson called 911 at 2:40 am saying that he had just discovered his wife had fallen down the stairs and was unconscious but was still breathing. Here is that call:
Michael said his wife had been drinking that evening and that she had also taken Valium. Her blood alcohol content was 0.07 percent at the time of her death, just shy of the legal limit for driving in NC, 0.08. Kathleen’s autopsy showed that her thyroid neck cartilage was fractured and that she had cuts on her head and back that were “consistent with blows from a blunt object”. It also showed that she slowly died from her injuries, bleeding out over the course of 90-120 minutes. The medical examiner concluded that Kathleen Peterson died by homicide, bleeding from the cuts on her head/back that were caused by an assault with a “light, yet rigid” weapon. The prosecution claimed this weapon was a blow poke.
Michael’s story was that his wife had fallen down the stairs while inebriated and died. He was sitting outside the home by the pool and heard nothing.
During Michael Peterson’s trial, prosecution revealed that during a search of the Peterson’s home, police discovered that Michael was bisexual. James Hardin Jr argued that his hidden bisexuality was a motive to murder Kathleen. He said Kathleen discovered Peterson’s bisexuality and wanted to leave him, but because of her wealth, Peterson did not want to go through with the divorce. There was literally zero physical evidence linked with this theory other than those confirming that Michael was bisexual and Kathleen was rich. Michael Peterson says he and Kathleen had “an understanding” that he was seeing men on the side and that she wasn’t bothered by it because he loved her and their relationship was good.
It gets weirder
One of the most bizarre aspects of this case is that Michael’s version of the story is that Kathleen had a one in a million freak accident.
However, back in Germany Michael Peterson’s BFF Elizabeth Ratliff also happened to die in another “freak staircase accident” in 1995. In that case, it’s thought that Ratliff succumbed to her blood clotting disorder via an intra-cerebral hemorrhage and then fell down the stairs after she was already deceased. However, Michael Peterson was the last person to see Elizabeth Ratliff alive and at that time no one was suspicious of him.
Elizabeth Ratliff’s body was exhumed in 2003. A second autopsy was performed by the same medical examiner who had done Kathleen Peterson’s autopsy. The ME overturned Elizabeth’s original autopsy and concluded she also died by homicide.
So is Michael Peterson guilty?
— There was a print on Kathleen from Michael’s shoe, which is inconsistent with Michael’s story. There was also blood spatter on Michael’s pants and evidence that some of the blood at the crime scene was cleaned up.
— Michael Peterson is the only other person who was at the home the night Kathleen died.
— Kathleen Peterson bleed out over 90-120 minutes, during which it is believed she was conscious at least some of the time. Why didn’t Michael Peterson hear her calling for help? During the hours Michael claims he was outside by the pool, he was wearing shorts and a t-shirt in 50 degree weather. In December. For hours. When he could have popped inside to get a jacket or blanket and found Kathleen.
— It’s VERY weird for one man to be close to two separate women who both died in a freak staircase accident.
— The couple was $143,000 in credit-card debt at the time of the murder and Kathleen Peterson expected that she might be laid off by the end of the year. Michael did not bring a real income to the family through his writing. Anyone who watches Forensic Files can tell you that money (Kathleen had a $1.4 million life insurance policy) is a common motivation for murder.
— Files were deleted from Michael’s phone and computer around the time of Kathleen’s death in large quantities. If I were at the center of a criminal investigation, I sure as hell would quick delete some salacious text messages from my phone (😂) but it’s worth noting that Michael did these batch deletions before and after Kathleen’s death.
— Something we always have to be conscious of is the fact that predators lie. If Michael Peterson was guilty, in all likelihood, he would lie about it. He has a documented history of lying about his war record, something sacred that deeply offends people who have served. There are people who are skilled liars who can murder someone and convincingly lie about it, even making you feel sorry for them as the victim of a tragedy. Whether Michael Peterson is a predator or an innocent man is the question, we just have to remember that guilty people do their very best to look innocent and can be very adept at it.
— Kathleen divorced her first husband because he cheated on her. She may not have had the change of heart Michael says she had with their marriage in order to allow him to have affairs.
— The M.E. who did Kathleen’s autopsy said she had defensive wounds.
— When EMTs arrived at the house and went to try to save Kathleen’s life, Michael went upstairs and checked emails.
Kathleen Peterson’s daughter, Caitlin, filed a wrongful death claim against Michael Peterson and settled with him for $25 million.
On October 10, 2003 a jury found Michael Peterson guilty of Kathleen’s murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole because the jury believed the murder was premeditated. Both the North Carolina Court of Appeals and North Carolina Supreme Court upheld his conviction. He was also denied a new trial by the Durham County Superior Court.
In 2010, a crime scene analyst who provided expert testimony during Peterson’s trial, Duane Deaver, was investigated for a series of egregious errors made in past criminal cases and subsequently fired. Michael Peterson received a judicial order for a new trial and on December 16, 2011 he was released from prison and placed under house arrest.
On February 24, 2017 Michael Peterson entered an Alford Plea, which means a defendant understands there is enough evidence to convict them, but they maintain they are innocent of the crime. He was sentenced to time served and released.
And some signs he might be innocent:
— One thing that gives me a huge amount of pause in this case is Michael Peterson’s history of criticizing local police and Durham County District Attorney James Hardin Jr. who prosecuted his case. This seems very inappropriate. James Hardin Jr. also had Mike Nifong work on his prosecution team. Nifong later succeeded Hardin as Durham District Attorney and was then fired and disbarred after it was discovered he withheld DNA evidence in the Duke lacrosse case.
— In July 2014, a request was made that every single conviction Mike Nifong had worked on be investigated since we now know he is comfortable committing conspiracy to withhold evidence and not giving people their due process rights. Darryl Howard, who had been in prison since his 1995 murder conviction, was given a hearing which resulted in his conviction being vacated. It was discovered that the murders Howard had been convicted of included sexual assaults. DNA evidence from the sexual assaults ruled out Howard. This was known to Mike Nifong at the time of Howard’s trial but by all accounts it was never turned over to the defense. Darryl Howard had served 20 years in prison by the time he was exonerated.
— Michael and Kathleen’s friends and family testified that the couple was happy and that they believed Kathleen accepted Michael’s bisexuality, removing the prosecution’s main motive for murder.
— The prosecution’s theory that Kathleen flipped out about Michael being bisexual and he had to murder her sounds like a kind of reverse gay panic defense. It feels like James Hardin Jr.’s arguments were weaponizing the defendant’s bisexuality in a homophobic way, with the intention to play on tropes and get the jurors to be triggered and angry at Michael, not presenting a reasonable argument for his guilt. Hardin succeeded in turning Kathleen’s sister, Candace Zamperini, against Michael Peterson using this argument, but those closest to Kathleen and Michael affirmed her acceptance of and love for her husband.
— Forensic expert Henry Lee testified in court that the blood splatter evidence in the Peterson home was consistent with Kathleen falling down the stairs.
— The director of The Staircase interviewed jurors about why they voted guilty. Several jurors said they were convinced by the amount of blood at the crime scene. This amount of blood could have come from Kathleen coughing up blood, rather than from her lacerations (which would be more indicative of homicide). Henry Lee also testified that some of the blood could be mixed with urine, making it appear as if there was more blood than Kathleen actually lost.
— The director was also personally unconvinced of Michael Peterson’s guilt while making the documentary: “I am not saying that I think Michael Peterson is innocent. What happened that night is still a huge mystery. But during the five-month trial, his guilt was not proven to me.”
— Michael Peterson’s lawyer (the one you saw in The Staircase) says: “And I believe — and still believe — that Michael is innocent. And as I said in the documentary, it really caused me to second-guess myself in terms of, “Did I really read what was going on in the courtroom correctly? Was I missing something?” There was nothing that I second-guessed myself on in terms of the actual choices I made during the trial, but I second-guessed my ability to comprehend what was happening in the courtroom. To read the courtroom. To understand how things were affecting the jury. I really questioned that. And I’m not sure you ever get that back. I mean, I’ve won trials since then, but it just makes you wonder, “How did I miss it so badly in that one?”
The owl theory
One argument for Michael Peterson’s innocence is a real tinfoil hat conspiracy theory that actually makes a lot of sense. That theory, called “the owl theory” was created by Michael and Kathleen’s neighbor, attorney T. Lawrence Pollard, who had followed the case on the news. The theory is that an owl killed Kathleen. Yup.
It’s not quite as crazy as it sounds. Three small owl feathers and a fragment from a tree were found tangled in Kathleen Peterson’s hair. This particular clump of hair was found in Kathleen’s hand, as if she had pulled it out herself prior to her death.
The M.E. who performed Kathleen’s autopsy rejected this theory because she did not think an owl would create wounds as deep as the ones on Kathleen’s head and back. However, other experts have disagreed with her. Those experts were neurosurgeon and owl expert Alan van Norman, professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota Patrick T. Redig, and Kate P. Davis, the director of the educational non-profit Raptors of the Rockies.