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The chilling true story behind new series The Staircase

Murder or mishap?
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When American author Michael Peterson called 911 in the early morning of December 9, 2001, he reported his wife had fallen down a flight of stairs.

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“She’s still breathing,” he said, his voice sounding pained and desperate. “Please come!”

So, upon the paramedics’ arrival at the wealthy couple’s mansion in Durham, North Carolina, they weren’t surprised to find a middle-aged woman slumped at the bottom of a staircase. What they hadn’t expected to see, was the shocking amount of blood – spattered on the walls, pooled on the floor, and all over Kathleen’s lifeless body.

“Michael Peterson talked about a lot of things in the 911 call – Kathleen’s breathing and consciousness,” says Diane Fanning, an American journalist and author who covered the case.

“But he never once mentioned the blood.”

Fanning’s 2005 book on the case, Written in Blood, was optioned by the producers for the HBO series, The Staircase. The eight-part series, starring Toni Collette and Colin Firth, dramatises the events surrounding Kathleen’s life and macabre death, and the ensuing murder trial of her husband. The trial had previously been the focus of a 2004 documentary series, also called The Staircase (on Netflix).

With the HBO drama series now streaming on BINGE, Diane, who attended Michael Peterson’s 2003 trial, talked with WHO about a gripping case that continues to divide people. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

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Michael Peterson in court. (Credit: Getty)

Who are Michael and Kathleen Peterson?

The couple were amongst the upper crust of Durham, a small city in America’s south. Michael was a Vietnam veteran turned author, who wrote novels based on his war experiences. Kathleen was an executive-level engineer.

They lived in a stunning colonial mansion on a sprawling block and had an extended family that included Kathleen’s adult daughter, Caitlin, from a previous marriage, and Michael’s adult sons, Todd and Clayton, from his first marriage.

“Kathleen was the main breadwinner,” says Diane. “She was financially supporting Michael’s full-grown sons.”

How did Kathleen die?

Michael said he found his wife at the bottom of the stairs, around 45 minutes after she had said goodnight outside by the pool, where the couple had been enjoying a drink. But based on Kathleen’s multiple head lacerations, an autopsy concluded she had suffered blows from a blunt object and Michael was charged with murder. He vehemently denied killing her.

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The prosecution claimed that Michael had been unfaithful. (Credit: BINGE)

The “motive”

The prosecution laid out a case of infidelity and deception.

Searches of Michael’s computer revealed that he appeared to have a secret sex life, which included relations with men and male sex workers. The prosecution argued that Kathleen discovered everything that night when she used his computer.

“I think she threatened to divorce him, which would leave him without the income he’s used to, and he lashed out,” says Diane, who became convinced of Michael’s guilt during the trial.

“Michael’s sister told me he has a temper.”

In the documentary, Michael claims that Kathleen knew he was bisexual and accepted his liaisons with men.

“From what I know about Kathleen, somebody being bisexual wouldn’t have bothered her,” says Diane.

“But a spouse being unfaithful to her would bother her. She left her first husband because he was unfaithful.”

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Colin Firth as Michael in the show. (Credit: BINGE)

The verdict

A jury found Michael guilty in 2003 and he was given a life term. For Fanning, the “big evidence” of the case was the presence of red neurons in Kathleen’s brain. Caused by a lack of oxygen, the neurons exist if a person has been dead longer than two hours. Going by Michael’s claim that he found Kathleen around 45 minutes after last seeing her, “it wasn’t possible that she bled to death in that window of time,” says Fanning.

Another “murder”

In a stunning twist during the investigation, it emerged that in 1985 a friend of Michael’s, Elizabeth Ratliff, was also found dead at the bottom of a staircase with head injuries. At the time, the death was concluded to have been caused by a brain haemorrhage.

Michael has never been charged over the death. After Elizabeth’s death, Michael began caring for her daughters, Margaret and Martha. The pair have stoically stood by him and believe he is innocent, including of their mother’s death. Kathleen’s daughter, Caitlin, however, has said she believes Michael is guilty of her mother’s death.

“The autopsy report turned Caitlin,” says Diane.

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Michael was granted a new trial in 2017 and ended up being released. (Credit: BINGE)

Free man

In yet another shocking development, Michael was freed and granted a new trial in 2017 after it emerged a blood analyst had lied on the stand.

Instead of facing a new trial, Michael entered an “Alford plea” to the voluntary manslaughter of Kathleen (where Michael admits there is enough evidence to charge him with murder, but he doesn’t admit guilt). Taking the plea “is the most difficult thing I’ve done,” Michael said at the time.

“I’m innocent.”

The 78-year-old “is still living in Durham, in a small apartment,” says Diane.

“He’s getting quite old now, but people still see him around. His family still support him.”

You can stream The Staircase now on BINGE, live and on demand with a 14 day FREE trial. START FREE TRIAL.

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