The mother of all true-crime documentary series is back. In the matter of newspaper columnist and novelist Michael Peterson, and the alleged murder of his wife, Kathleen, and possibly another person, it ain’t over until it’s over.
The Staircase (starts streaming Netflix on June 8) is a true-crime classic, not just formidably compelling but hugely influential. Such much-binged and much-discussed true-crime series as Making a Murderer and The Keepers borrowed from the style of investigation established by this program, a project that began in 2001. In fact, The Staircase has been called the Citizen Kane of true-crime documentary series.
It was in 2001 that Peterson says he found his wife at the bottom of the stairs in their home, bleeding and close to death. He called 911. When paramedics and police arrived, she was dead, and from that point on, suspicion fell on Peterson. His wife seemed to have lacerations on her head, marks that did not fit, in instant scrutiny, with a fall down the stairs. Attention was focused on a fireplace poker that prosecutors believed was used to bludgeon her. Peterson was indicted.
From early in the indictment process, Oscar-winning French director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and a crew were given access to Peterson and his defence team. The trial was documented with an attention to thoroughness and detail that was, at the time, highly unusual. The Staircase aired in France and on the BBC in Britain in 2004. The eight-hour version aired on the Sundance Channel in the United States and won a Peabody Award. It has been elusive in Canada and now it isn’t.
In 2013, de Lestrade returned to the case, which had so many twists it demanded more attention. Now, he has added three new hours to the coverage, and on Netflix you get the full 13-episode story. It is bewildering and thorny.
The opening episode takes you back to 2001. Peterson’s story to the camera is that on the evening before the death, “I went to Blockbuster and rented a video.” He says he and Kathleen drank several glasses of wine and chatted on the patio about the movie. Then they strolled down to the pool where they enjoyed clement weather with the dogs sitting with them. Then, he says, Kathleen said she had an early-morning call and was going to bed. He saw her stroll to the house, he says. Later, he discovered her at the bottom of the stairs.
His family then talk about the impact of the police arriving at the scene. ”Everywhere I went, a policeman was on me,” Peterson says. His son had the same experience and talks about officers trying to separate family members, not allowing them to speak to one another. In the long-running story of the trial and the ensuing events, the anxiety of the police and their suspicions about Michael would be an important factor. They had decided, instantly, that he was guilty of something. Or were they doing what they were trained to do?
The filmmaker had access to Peterson’s legal team and took no shortcuts in documenting how a defence is mounted for such a trial. Viewers see in detail how outside forces are used to determine what seems plausible to a jury. The matter of “burden of proof” is discussed and gnawed upon at length as the lawyers ponder whether or not to mount a defence case at trial because the prosecution has not proven anything to the jury.
Then there are the twists that send the narrative sideways. Without giving too much away, there was a hidden aspect to Peterson’s life. And then there emerges another figure in the narrative.
The level of detail is astonishing – not a scintilla of the storyline is tossed aside. It’s a terrific, troubling case to fall into and a sublime summer distraction in the true-crime genre.