There's a new true crime craze sweeping the nation — and no, it's not another installment of Serial. Netflix's newest true crime docuseries, The Staircase, explores the mysterious death of Kathleen Peterson and the subsequent murder trial of her husband, Michael Peterson, and it has everything fans of the genre have come to expect. If you've already binged your way through all 13 episodes on Netflix, you likely have a few questions, and that's where these facts about The Staircase come in. Get ready to have all your questions about The Staircase answered — and then some.
The Peterson case revolves around one very important question: Did Kathleen accidentally fall down the stairs and bleed to death, as Peterson's legal team argues, or was she brutally attacked? Michael Peterson, Kathleen's husband, pled not guilty to the December 2001 homicide, but a Durham, North Carolina jury charged him with first-degree murder in October 2003, and he has maintained his innocence ever since his conviction.
Over the last 17 years, the case has taken a few strange turns, and in 2017, it was resolved once and for all when Peterson entered an Alford plea (a deal in which someone maintains their innocence, but acknowledges that the prosecution has enough evidence to convict them) for the charge of voluntary manslaughter. After a decade in prison, Peterson was finally free.
The Staircase follows Peterson throughout this entire process — from his initial indictment in 2001 to his Alford plea in 2017 — but the docuseries is just the beginning. If you're really into The Staircase, here are seven crucial facts you need to know.
1. Michael Peterson's case lasted over a decade and had more than a few twists and turns.
After Peterson was found guilty of first-degree murder in 2003, his legal team appealed the decision multiple times. In 2007, his case made it to the North Carolina Supreme Court, where it was decided that he received a fair trial, thereby upholding his sentence.
However, in 2010, Peterson's case received a second life when it was reported that one of the prosecution's principal witnesses allegedly reported false blood test results. WRAL reports that at the time, Special Deputy Attorney General Richard Montgomery insisted that despite the witness' testimony, Peterson received a fair trial, saying, "That's very important in our system that defendants receive a fair trial, but there's no right to a perfect trial. It's also important to have some finality to cases, and where there does not need to be a new trial, there should not be a new trial."
Peterson was granted a new trial and was released on bail, and after a few years on house arrest awaiting trial, he entered the Alford plea. After pleading down to voluntary manslaughter charges, the Durham County judge sentenced Peterson to 86 months in prison, but because he had more than served that time, he was allowed to walk free.
2. The docuseries is new to Netflix, but it isn't new.
If you're stumbling upon The Staircase for the first time, it's easy to think that it's a totally new Netfilx original, but that isn't the case. In fact, The Staircase has been been around since 2004, when filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade first premiered a two-hour version of the series. The original mini-series included eight episodes, and in 2012, de Lestrade released a sequel, The Last Chance, which corresponds to episodes 9 and 10 on Netflix.
The final three episodes that Netflix released on June 8, 2018 are the only new additions to The Staircase series. These episodes follow Peterson as he enters the Alford plea and attempts to move on with his life.
3. de Lestrade originally wanted to create a two-hour documentary.
I guess there was no way of knowing that Peterson's case would last over a decade, was there? De Lestrade recently told Metro that his original plans for the project were very different — and much, much shorter:
When we started shooting in February 2002 and when David Rudolf gave us access and the judge gave us access in the court room and we started to shoot and shoot and shoot, then we realized how big it could be. Because in the beginning it was supposed to be a two-hour film. It wasn’t supposed to be an eight-hour documentary series. But after six months of shooting, I knew we couldn’t tell the story in two hours.
4. The filmmakers don't care about finding "the truth."
Most true crime series are obsessed with discovering the truth, but not The Staircase. de Lestrade has been open about his feelings about the Peterson case (more on that in a second), but at the end of the day, he wanted his docuseries to be about the legal system.
Said the filmmaker at a Tribeca Film Festival Q&A in April 2018, "The purpose has never been to look for the truth. Or to look for what happened that night. It was just to look at the way the justice system would treat the case, and it took 17 years."
5. But at the same time, de Lestrade does think that Peterson is innocent — and he believes in the "owl theory."
After spending well over a decade with Peterson and his legal team, de Lestrade doesn't believe that the Durham native killed his wife. "We weren’t there that night so we can’t pretend we know what happened," de Lestrade explained at the Tribeca Film Festival Q&A. "We may have an opinion or a feeling, but to me, there is no strong evidence presented that Michael Peterson killed his wife. That’s where I stand."
de Lestrade isn't the only one who believes in Peterson's innocence. Some close to the case have suggested that on the night of her death, Kathleen was attacked by an owl, and the attack made her so disoriented that she accidentally tripped on the stairs and died. This "owl theory" has been floating around since Peterson's trial, and even though de Lestrade didn't devote much time to it in the docuseries, he believes that it's more than possible.
He told Vulture:
It might be the more plausible explanation. How can you explain all the cuts and lacerations and the absence of fractures? When you start thinking about the owl theory, and the kind of injuries she had, you start thinking maybe there is something there.
6. The show's editor fell in love with Michael Peterson.
In a surprising twist of events, The Staircase's editor, Sophie Brunet, fell in love with her subject, Michael Peterson. The two dated for quite a while, but de Lestrade said they broke up in May 2017.
The director told L'Express in late May, "This is one of the incredible things that happened during those 15 years. Life is really full of surprises. They had a real story, which lasted until May 2017. But she never let her own feelings affect the course of editing."
7. Filming the docuseries almost broke the director.
Following a murder trial is no easy task, but it's especially difficult when the legal process lasts over a decade. In 2013, de Lestrade revealed to The Daily Beast that the process of making The Staircase was so taxing that he planned to quit documentary filmmaking once the original eight episodes were completed:
When I finally completed The Staircase in September 2004, I felt as emotionally drained as David Rudolf did at the end of the film. I told myself that I would stop making documentary films—just as David had vowed that the Peterson trial would be his last criminal-defense case. It was wrenching to watch as Michael Peterson, bound at the wrists, was swept into the car that would take him to prison for the rest of his life.
Of course, de Lestrade ultimately returned to Peterson's story with five new installments, but he said that "the mystery of Kathleen Peterson's death haunts [him] to this day."