If you love true crime, you've probably already binge watched The Staircase, a new docu-series on Netflix. The 13-part series investigates the death of Kathleen Peterson in December 2001 and the subsequent murder trial of her husband, Michael Peterson. The case hinges on one specific detail: Did Kathleen accidentally fall down the stairs, as Peterson and his lawyers argue, or was she violently attacked? Peterson pled not guilty, but a Durham County jury convicted him of first-degree murder in October 2003, and he has maintained his innocence ever since. But now, a new theory has emerged that may explain her death. This The Staircase theory blames an owl for Kathleen's death — and yes, you read that right.
In a bizarre twist, some people close to the Peterson case believe that the theories put forth by the defense and the prosecution are both wrong. Instead, they believe that on the night of her death, an owl attacked Kathleen, rendering her unable to safely climb the stairs and ultimately leading to her death.
The "owl theory" first originated from a man named Larry Pollard, a lawyer who lived next door to the Petersons. Pollard and the owl theorists believe that while Kathleen was walking back towards the house from the pool — Michael claimed at the time of his trial that he and Kathleen spent the evening outside drinking wine — she was attacked by a large owl. The theory suggests that the owl dug its talons into her scalp, drawing blood and leaving trace amounts of feathers in her hair.
The theory claims that as Kathleen moved inside to escape the bird, the effects of the attack coupled with the alcohol and muscle relaxers in her system made her woozy, and while climbing the stairs, she tripped, hit her head on the molding, and began bleeding heavily, leading to her death.
You may be thinking to yourself, "An owl? Really?" but this theory actually has some legs. Pollard told a Durham TV station that investigators found "hair that was pulled out from the root of her head" in Kathleen's hand, and microscopic owl feathers were found in the clump of hair. Kathleen also had deep wounds and bruises on her head, which experts say were shaped in a claw-like trident pattern — similar to an owl's talon. Plus, owls have been known to attack people in the Raleigh-Durham area (where the Petersons lived) and owls are especially prone to attacking in December, when they are territorial and mating, reports Audobon magazine.
While Pollard's theory may sound credible to some, it ultimately made no difference in Peterson's case. Pollard brought his theory to the district attorney, who dismissed it, and to Peterson's defense attorney, David Rudolf, but by that point, it was too little, too late. As Rudolf told Vulture:
The first time it ever crossed my consciousness was a day or two before I was getting ready to give my closing argument. Even if I was willing to come in after six months of saying it was a fall and say, 'Sorry folks, it wasn’t a fall, it was an owl that first caused these wounds,' I couldn’t do that because in the closing argument, you’re limited to evidence that’s been presented at trial ... I give Larry Pollard credit for coming up with it. I wish he had realized it six months earlier.
While Pollard's timing on the owl theory is unfortunate, pretty much everyone involved with The Staircase believes that it could have helped Peterson if it had been considered earlier in the trial. Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade didn't devote much time in the docu-series to the owl theory because it wasn't super relevant to the "legal process," but he believes that it's a valid explanation for what happened to Kathleen.
De Lestrade 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.
Now that I know about this owl theory, I'm questioning everything I know about true crime. Maybe Making a Murderer has its own mysterious, bird-centric theory?