Were they pushed or did they fall? It’s a well-worn whodunnit formula, too corny for today’s drama writers – but when it happens in real life, you’ve got something truly gripping.
In December 2001, businesswoman Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the foot of the stairs in her North Carolina home. Her husband, crime novelist Michael Peterson, insisted he’d been out by the pool and walked in to find her there.
The police had other ideas and arrested him – which would have been the last the world outside North Carolina would have heard of the case if it hadn’t been for French documentary film-maker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, who was so intrigued by certain inconsistencies that the death obsessed him for years. It also helped him invent the new style of real-life crime story-telling picked up on by the likes of Making a Murderer, Serial and The Jinx.
Since the original trial back in 2003, de Lestrade has returned to the story again and again – documenting the twists and turns in the case, adding fresh episodes to the first ground-breaking series, which aired in 2004.
“I’ve spent 16 years of my life on this story,” de Lestrade explains. “And while that isn’t full-time filming and editing across the years, there’s not really been a day when it hasn’t been in my head.”
So as Netflix airs 13 episodes, which span the full 16-year investigation, it’s worth rewinding to see how this small-town crime became a global TV hit.
The facts of the case are simple: in December 2001, Peterson called 911, saying he’d found his wife Kathleen collapsed at the bottom of the stairs; grim police photos from the crime scene show her terrible injuries. It didn’t take long for the local Durham police to decide this was a murder rather than an accident. As they moved in to arrest Peterson, de Lestrade arrived on the scene.
He’d just made Murder on a Sunday Morning – a one-off film following the black teenage murder suspect Brenton Butler, which won an Oscar for best documentary – but this time de Lestrade wanted a different story.
“I was looking for a white guy, well known in his own community, wealthy, who could afford to pay a very well-known defence lawyer so I could look at how the system would treat that case,” he explains.
After working his way through 400 different cases across five months, he met Peterson. “I couldn’t be sure he was innocent, but he was very interesting,” de Lestrade says. “Then I met the District Attorney and he said: ‘Michael Peterson is evil’. He said that exact word – and I knew that they were not prosecuting him because they had physical evidence that he did it, but because of the way he was living his life.”
The medical examiner, de Lestrade explains, saw Kathleen Peterson’s body on the night and said her injuries were consistent with falling down the stairs. Then when police searched the house, they found evidence that suggested Peterson was bisexual and had been having affairs with men on the side.
“In North Carolina at that time, having an affair outside of marriage, with men, was impossible to believe,” says de Lestrade. “The physical evidence doesn’t show any [skull] fractures or evidence of blows to the head. The police thought he was evil because he slept with men – and I realised this was a story I just had to follow. I still don’t know exactly how this story is going to end – but I’ll be there to film it when it does.”
The Staircase is available to stream on Netflix from Friday 8th June.