A 21-year-old murder story is on everyone’s lips after HBO released our miniseries “The Staircase” in eight episodes.
The drama series is based on a true story about the couple Michael and Kathleen Peterson, who lived with their family in Durham, North Carolina.
On December 9, 2001, 48-year-old Kathleen died after allegedly falling down the stairs. She was found bloody and beaten, and the big question was: Was her husband Michael behind?
Accident or murder?
– My wife had an accident. She’s still breathing!
This is one of the first messages from a weeping Michael to the emergency number at 02:40 at night, according to The Guardian.
When he is asked what accident she has been exposed to, he answers that she has fallen down the stairs, but that she is still breathing.
By the time the emergency services arrived at their large house in Durham, Kathleen was already dead. The walls and stairs were covered in blood that had splashed, and investigators believed that several of the injuries to Kathleen were difficult to reconcile with a fall.
Just a few days later, Michael was charged with premeditated murder of his wife.
Found his wife in a pool of blood
When the trial started, it got a lot of attention as Michael was well known in the city. He was both a writer, former captain of the US Navy and engaged in local politics.
Michael has two sons, Todd and Clayton, from a previous marriage to Patty. In his previous relationship, they also adopted two daughters, Margaret and Martha.
Kathleen also had a daughter from before named Caitlin.
During the trial, Michael was convicted and spent the next eight years in prison, before the sentence was overturned due to questions about the reliability of a key witness.
There are still several questions about what actually happened on the evening of December 2001.
Michael himself explained that he and his wife Kathleen had seen the film “American Sweethearts” together in the living room, and went out into the garden when it was finished around 11 p.m.
Here the couple sat down by the pool to have fun, chat a bit and share the last splash of the wine bottle.
Since Kathleen had an important meeting the next day, she wanted to go to bed after a while.
Michael was left outside, but eventually went into the house and found his wife in a pool of blood at the end of the stairs.
Shortly after he called the emergency center, one of his sons also returned home.
Thinks Kathleen fought back
It was a big shock for the children after the incident.
– It was as if two bombs had hit us. First that mom died and saw that they arrested dad, says daughter Martha in the documentary series about the trial that came out only in 2004 under the same name: “The Staircase”.
The children claimed that Kathleen and Michael loved each other, that they never quarreled, and that they would know about it if there were problems between them.
Michael’s defense attorney brought in experts to court who claimed that Kathleen had fallen backwards. She first became unconscious before she then banged her head against the door frame.
Among other things, hair remains and blood from her were found here.
Defendant also believed that Kathleen had drunk alcohol and taken valium the same night as the incident. In addition, they said that her injuries are not compatible with blows from Michael.
The prosecution, on the other hand, claimed that it was not an accident, but that Michael had killed his wife while she was fighting.
Based on the injuries Kathleen received on the scalp, it could not have just been a case of a fall in the stairs, claims state attorney Jim Hardin.
– This is where the problem lies. They say it was an accident caused by a fall on the stairs, but we say that this is a murder, Hardin said in court.
Lived a double life
Michael had blood stains on his clothes, and an expert witness believed that they showed that he must have been near his wife when her head was beaten.
Investigators had also gone through Michael’s computer where they found emails of interest to the case.
Police had a theory that Michael had lived a double life and was possibly bisexual or gay as he had sent emails to a male escort.
Possibly Kathleen had found out about this and wanted to end the marriage. On the other hand, there was no evidence that this was anything more than innocent flirting on the Internet.
Another possible motive was that he killed his wife for money. The couple had a debt of 142,000 dollars in 20 different accounts, but a total fortune of 1.4 million dollars writes CNN.
Similarity in the death of a friend
Kathleen’s death was not the first time anyone in the immediate vicinity of Michael died in a stairwell. A former couple of friends of Michael and his ex-wife Patty in Germany eventually became interested in the trial.
Michael and Patty lived in Germany in the 80’s and were good friends with George and Elizabeth Ratliff.
Both George and Michael had military jobs, but George was killed during the American invasion of Grenada in 1983. Only two years later, Elizabeth died.
One evening Elizabeth and her daughters had been visiting Michael and Patty. After dinner he drove them home and helped Elizabeth put the children to bed.
The next morning, babysitter found Elizabeth dead on the stairs.
In the 80’s, it was concluded that she died of a stroke and a blood disease that made it easier for her to lose a lot of blood in a short time. Then Michael and Patty adopted her daughters.
Although the case was reopened, and they looked at the possibility that it was a murder, the prosecution did not have enough evidence that Michael could be behind it.
Michael was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of his wife Kathleen, but kept claiming he was innocent.
– I was acquitted. I did not hurt Kathleen, but I could not take it anymore. I told my lawyer that I did not want to appeal. I just wanted it to end, Michael said in court.
In retrospect, Michael’s defenders have tried to get the case resumed with the help of several experts. They claimed it could be an owl that had attacked Kathleen the night she died.
In a new interview with Michael’s lawyer, David Rudolf, from this year, he tells the Daily Mail that there is probably a possibility that Kathleen was attacked by an owl.
In the years following the trial in 2003, several people experienced being attacked by owls.
The case took a turn when it became known in 2011 that the expert witness Duane Deaver had been part of a major court scandal. Several blood samples from several criminal cases had been embezzled or misinterpreted from 1987-2003 and Deaver was fired.
It emerged in court that Deaver had made misleading expert reports and that he lied systematically. Michael was then released from prison, but had to live under house arrest with an electronic anklet.
Michael Peterson has had several fights in court, but when the case was up again in 2017, he became a free man. This despite the fact that many still question whether he had anything to do with his wife’s death or not.