The Staircase, a docuseries that focuses on the trial of Michael Peterson for the 2001 murder of his wife Kathleen, is considered by many to be a true crime masterpiece. Directed by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the first eight episodes aired on the Sundance Channel in 2005. With a haunting score and intimate interviews, The Staircase created a template that’s been widely replicated by series' such as Making a Murderer and The Jinx. Two more episodes were filmed in 2011, when Peterson was granted a new trial, and three more were filmed in 2016. The entire 13 episodes that make up the documentary are now streaming on Netflix.
And while The Staircase remains as engrossing today as when it first aired, it's not meant to be an objective work of journalism. Rather, it's a narrative — an important narrative that examines our flawed justice system — shaped by the filmmakers. In the 13-plus hours that make up the finished film, certain facts that might complicate or distract from that narrative are elided or left out entirely. These include:
Michael Peterson’s long-term relationship with the editor of The Staircase:
De Lestrade confirmed the long rumoured romance between Peterson and the film’s editor Sophie Brunet to L’Express saying "This is one of the incredible things that happened during those 15 years. Life is really full of surprises. They had a real story, which lasted until May 2017. But she never let her own feelings affect the course of editing."
David Rudolf’s wife covered the trial as a reporter and wrote a letter to jurors during deliberations:
As reported by Raleigh and Company, Sonya Pfeiffer, who is married to Peterson's lawyer David Rudolf, covered Peterson’s original trial extensively as a reporter for WTVD. Soon after, she quit journalism to pursue a legal degree and now works in the same law firm as her husband. Pfeiffer was criticised during the trial for sending a letter to jurors during deliberations, inviting them to dinner and an interview. Her news director apologised and said the letter was meant to be sent after deliberations concluded.
And while de Lestrade made the decision to keep parts of Candace Zamperini’s fiery victim impact statement in the final episode of The Staircase, the portions where Zamperini accused Pfieffer of misconduct were left out.
In the unedited version of Zamperini’s statement she says that Pfeiffer, “... pretended to be my friend, she came to my home for an exclusive interview,” Zamperini said in court. “She invited me to dine. She told me she believed my sister had fallen down the staircase. Sonya Pfeiffer had the hubris to come to Maplewood Cemetery without an invitation to hold hands with our family [at Kathleen Peterson’s headstone].”
Pfeiffer has denied any wrongdoing telling Raleigh and Company via email, “Like all good reporters, I put in a lot of legwork to convince [Zamperini] to talk with me.”
Pointing to a 2003 Indy Week story that mentions the interview with Zamperini, Pfieffer says, “You will note that the interview was not taken well by the defence team, which, as a former reporter, you know means you probably got the story right."
Clayton Peterson’s arrest and incarceration:
Michael Peterson's oldest son Clayton is not in any way responsible for Kathleen Peterson’s death, but he is featured prominently in The Staircase, particularly in the last five episodes. He and his wife take their young baby to visit Michael Peterson in prison, and later (now with two children) the family spends time at Peterson’s condo as he awaits a new trial. Clayton takes part in a lengthy discussion with his father, wife, and Martha and Margaret Ratliff (Peterson’s adopted daughters) about what the possibilities might be for a retrial or plea deal.
On May 7, 1994, six years before Kathleen’s death, the Asheville Citizen Times reported an Associated Press story that Clayton Peterson, then 19, had been charged with trying to firebomb Duke University’s main administration building. The homemade pipe bomb didn't explode or cause any injuries. When the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives later searched the Peterson home they found “six more assembled explosive devices hidden in the attic.”
Clayton was sentenced to a four-year prison term in a federal penitentiary. In a 1997 profile of Michael Peterson in the Greensboro News and Record, titled "Successful Author Lives the Quiet Life in Durham," the elder Peterson explains that his son planted the bomb only “as a diversion while he stole equipment needed to make a fake ID for a Myrtle Beach trip.” He describes Clayton’s incarceration as the "...the most painful thing that happened to me. This is not how I planned to spend my 50s — going to visit my son in the pen."
The Owl Theory
The theory that an owl might be responsible for Kathleen Peterson’s death was raised only after Michael Peterson's first trial ended. It has since been covered extensively. Because it is such a popular theory, some wondered why the only reference to it in The Staircase is a passing and dismissive remark by Michael Rudolf about the possibility of “some raptor.”
De Lestrade recently told Vulture about his decision not to include this theory saying, “The purpose of the film was to follow the legal process. If there would have been another trial, I’m sure that the owl theory would have been examined inside the courtroom. But because it was never introduced inside the courtroom, I decided not to talk about that theory. It’s really a mystery, the way she died.”