The Infamous Staircase Owl Theory, Explained

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
If there's one thing that true crime aficionados have on their "murder board" for true crime docu-series The Staircase (now streaming new episodes on Netflix), it's the owl theory. One of the craziest, but also most compelling, theories on who killed Kathleen Peterson has nothing to do with her once-convicted husband Michael Peterson at all. Instead, the "owl theory" suggests that Kathleen's death at the bottom of the staircase was caused by an ill-fated run-in with a large bird.
But is it even possible? It's not as ridiculous as it sounds.
You can credit attorney T. Lawrence "Larry" Pollard for first deducing this theory. In 2009, Pollard — a former neighbor of Peterson's as well as one of his lawyers — filed a "motion for appropriate relief" on the grounds that it was possible an owl, and not Peterson, killed Kathleen. Specifically, Pollard claimed that an attack by an owl led to Kathleen tumbling down the stairs to her death.
Per Audubon, this is how Pollard's owl theory played out. A Barred Owl (a common bird in Peterson's hometown of Durham, North Carolina) swooped down onto Kathleen, becoming entangled in her hair and ripping out part of her scalp. Kathleen was able to remove the bird from her hair, and went inside to, perhaps, tend to her wounds. However, a disoriented Kathleen fell down the stairs to her death before she was able to.
If you think this theory is super farfetched — it's actually not. Per Audubon, Kathleen was found holding three small feathers in her hands, which could be consistent with attempting to untangle an owl from one's hair. Pine needles were reportedly stuck to her hand. Her injuries were also reportedly consistent with an owl attack.
"When you look at her injuries, they do appear consistent with being made by an owl’s talons,” Peterson’s defense attorney Mary Jude Darrow told Audubon.
In fact, she told the outlet that it was perhaps because the theory sounds so farfetched she chose not to include it.
"I would hate to risk my client’s life or future on that argument," Darrow told Audubon.
Though Reddit loves the owl theory, the popular-but-crazy idea didn't make it into The Staircase — including the three new episodes released on Netflix after Pollard's theory made rounds with true crime fans.
As director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade explained in his interview with Vulture, it has to do with the fact that a new trial did not take place for Peterson. Instead, Peterson was freed after taking an Alford plea, which means Peterson can maintain his innocence while agreeing the prosecution has enough evidence to convict him. The deal was placed on the table before Peterson went to retrial for his murder charge.
"If there would have been another trial, I’m sure that the owl theory would have been examined inside the courtroom, and then it would have been in the film," de Lestrade told Vulture.
Still, like many true crime fans, he's onboard with Pollard's theory.
"The first time I heard about the owl theory, I really laughed," the director explained to the outlet. "But when I started looking at it and I met with Larry Pollard … It might be the more plausible explanation. How can you explain all the cuts and lacerations and the absence of fractures? When you start thinking about the owl theory, and the kind of injuries she had, you start thinking maybe there is something there."
While there are some moments in the series that seem to imply the owl theory, you'll have to head to Reddit if you want to do a deep dive with fellow true crime fans.
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