The Staircase Review

It’s the series that everyone’s been talking about. Is he innocent or guilty?

Recently released on Netflix The Staircase docu-series chronicles the life of Michael Peterson after the death of his wife Kathleen in 2001.

On Sunday December 6th 2001, Kathleen Peterson was found lying at the bottom of a staircase in her home in Durham, North Carolina. She was covered in blood and had a series of lacerations on her head. Her husband Michael phoned 911 to report it and from the moment the police arrived he was under suspicion for her murder and was subsequently arrested. The series does not shy away from crime-scene and autopsy images, so if anyone is squeamish then it is important that they known this beforehand.

At first glance, even to a layperson such as myself, the extreme amount of blood at the scene does look suspicious. You think, how could that have happened from just a fall down some stairs? It runs contrary to everything that you expect. You may anticipate that there would be some blood but not the excessive amount that is shown at the scene.

The series follows Michael’s defence team and interviews the prosecutors too as they prepare for trial. Michael comes across as a rich, eccentric man who has a fondness for smoking a pipe and listening to classical music.

The trial for the murder itself is covered in extensive detail and is fascinating as an example of how the US criminal justice system operates, particularly in the state of North Carolina. Before, during and after the trial there are a number of surprises that occur. I won’t give them away, but some are almost unbelievable.

The series is fascinating to watch and I would recommend that if you have Netflix and are not too squeamish that watch it.

I’m now going to outline some conclusions that were included in the programme for an explanation as to what happened on that night and offer one of my own. These contain spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happened then stop reading now.


The Prosecution’s Argument

The prosecution in the original trial tried to go with the theory that Michael Peterson hit Kathleen over the head with a blow poke. The injuries on her head were said to have caused her death by blood loss. They tried to argue that Michael faked the 911 call and that the blood was mostly dry when they arrived on scene. They argued that the motivating factor in the crime was Kathleen’s recent discovery of compromising information on Michael’s computer. They proposed that there had been an argument between them and that he then then killed her.

I think the blow poke as a murder weapon theory was unlikely as the blow poke itself was discovered in the bottom of the Peterson garage covered in dust and grime and had no traces of blood on it. However, as we see this did not deter the jury from convicting Michael and finding him guilty.

The Defence’s Argument

The defence argued that Kathleen Peterson slipped on the stairs and banged her head then got up and slipped a second time, hurting herself further. They said that there were two impact sites on the stairs where she had most likely banged her head. They reasoned that Michael had not heard her as he was in the garden at the time then entered the house to find her lying there gravely injured.

I do have my suspicions that this theory does not fit exactly either. The injuries when looking at the full autopsy report do not seem to exactly tally with this argument.

The Owl Theory

The Owl Theory was not used in the trial but was brought forward after someone claimed that the marks on Kathleen’s head matched those of raptor talons. Barred Owls were local to the area and Kathleen had been in the garden beforehand. The theory was that she was attacked on the head by a Barred Owl in the garden just before she went into the house. She then slipped down the stairs and died of blood loss from her injuries. Microscopic owl feathers were also found on her body.

I find there are a couple of things I doubt about this explanation. Firstly, she was sitting on a lounger or chair that had been in the garden for a while, so the owl feathers could have transferred to her body from the chair. Secondly, surely if she had been attacked by an owl she would have let out an almighty scream that would have alerted Michael?

My Theory

I have a theory that was not mentioned during the programme at all and I’m not sure if it was even considered by anyone at the time either. I theorise that Michael Peterson may well have committed the murder of Kathleen. The autopsy report mentioned a broken hyoid bone which is indicative of strangulation and was picked up by the Chief Medical Examiner who did the autopsy but the Prosecution pressured her to change her theory to blood loss – so that it matched their blow poke as murder weapon idea.

I believe that she may have been strangled and possibly beaten too, perhaps her head was slammed against the wall or she was pushed after a furious argument with Michael? However, I don’t believe that Michael is straight out lying that he didn’t do it. I believe that he really thinks he is innocent because he cannot remember, he has a complete blank when it comes to the murder itself. I think he probably has one, if not several psychological disorders, especially from his time in the Vietnam War. Yes, he has a history of slight fabrication with his time served there, but he must have seen or been involved in some horrific incidents at times as that war was atrocious and has left a legacy of psychological impact on so many people. Perhaps the only way that the truth would ever come out would be if Michael voluntarily underwent hypnosis? Who knows? At this moment in time it is just another theory.

What do you think happened?