The Staircase review: Did Michael Peterson kill his wife? Netflix show investigates 17-year-old mystery
Director - Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Rating - 4/5
The Alford plea is a cruel, cruel thing in US law. It offers convicts the opportunity to assert their innocence in court, but forces them to plead guilty to the crimes they’ve been accused of - and likely served prison time for - because the evidence against them does not guarantee an acquittal were a retrial to be conducted. On paper, those who take the Alford plea are guilty, thereby removing the possibility of the state being held accountable for wrongful conviction. Often, the crimes they’ve been accused of are of the serious nature - murder, rape, manslaughter.
I first heard of the Alford plea in the seminal Paradise Lost documentary series, which traced over two decades the case of The West Memphis Three - three teenagers who in the early ‘90s were convicted of murdering three children in a Satanic ritual. The only evidence the state had against them was witness testimony that the teens listened to Metallica, wore black, and a coerced confession from one of them, who had an IQ of below 69.
At the risk of ruining the films for you, The West Memphis Three were eventually released from prison 18 years after being convicted, after taking the Alford plea. They counted among their supporters everyone from Johnny Depp to Eddie Vedder and Peter Jackson. The third film in the series was nominated for an Academy Award and like the previous two, featured music by Metallica.
The filmmakers behind the Paradise Lost series gained unprecedented access to the case, and without much commentary, let the events inside the courtroom dictate the audience’s opinions. This same approach was used in Netflix’s most popular true crime documentary series, Making a Murderer.
The genre has come a long way since the early ‘90s, when films such as Paradise Lost and director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Oscar-winning Murder on a Sunday Morning were changing the game. A couple of years later, de Lestrade released Soupçons, an eight-part series chronicling the trial of Michael Peterson, a popular writer who in 2001 was arrested for the murder of his wife.
Kathleen Peterson was found at the bottom of the staircase, drenched in a pool of blood, with lacerations on her head. The prosecution argued that the conditions of the death weren’t consistent with a tumble down the stairs, and as is common in trials such as this - we heard how lawyers attempted to question Adnan Syed’s credibility in the podcast Serial - the skeletons in Michael Peterson’s closet are revealed. Kathleen must have discovered his affairs, or the fact that he is bisexual. And what about that other woman, his friend, who in 1985 was also found dead at the bottom of the stairs, her head cracked with suspicious injuries?
Every episode of The Staircase - there are three new additions, besides the original eight and two that were first released in 2005 - unleashes a plot twist so fantastic that your allegiances and biases will be tested. Everything you’ve been led to believe will be questioned.
And that is the beauty of shows such as this, and Making a Murderer and Serial. The evidence is usually overwhelming, the circumstances unfortunate, but there is always nagging doubt and an implied innocence.
Sarah Koenig very carefully avoided saying that Adnan Syed was innocent in Serial, and instead settled the matter by speculating that were she a part of the jury that tried him, she’d have enough reasonable doubt. As a journalist, Koenig is perfectly balanced. But as a storyteller, she has a responsibility to her listeners to offer more. De Lestrade’s biases in The Staircase are far more apparent. The entire story is told through Michael Peterson’s perspective, and the series has had a significant impact on the course of his trial. On one occasion that I consider to be a lapse in judgment, de Lestrade appears on camera and hugs Peterson, congratulating him on a momentary victory. This quick shot sticks out more than usual because it is the only time we either see or hear the filmmaker.
For the most part, though, de Lestrade occupies a fly-on-the-wall approach - listening in on family discussions, sitting in on deliberations by his lawyers, finding humour where there might not necessarily be any.
It is a tragedy of epic proportions, sprawled out over 15 years. Days turn into weeks, weeks into months, months into years. The case drags on. Weight is gained, then lost. Hair is shed. New district attorneys come and go. Children are born. Grandchildren are born. Yet Kathleen Peterson remains dead, reduced to a series of graphic images, to pieces of bloody evidence, to a number on the docket.
Watching people age before your eyes can be disconcerting. Watching their lives be ripped apart, seemingly on a whim, is terrifying. Like the case of Rajiv Gandhi assassination accused, Perarivalan, who has spent 27 years in prison for allegedly supplying the nine-volt batteries used in the bomb that killed the then Prime Minister, there are thousands of cases where justice may not be black and white. It could happen to anyone, and that’s the primal fear that stories such as this inspire in us.
Watch the Staircase trailer here