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A complex case

Peterson (Netflix)


A complex case

Netflix series addresses the trial and life of Michael Peterson

A woman with seven deep lacerations to her head dies in a pool of blood in her home, with only her husband nearby. As murder cases go, it seems pretty cut and dried, right?

Hold on—there’s no clear motive for a murder, no signs of struggle, and no blood spatters or brain injuries consistent with a beating. The victim, who had a blood alcohol level of .07 and had just taken Valium, was found wearing flip-flops at the bottom of a dark, narrow staircase in the middle of the night.

First responders found Kathleen Peterson dead at the bottom of a staircase in 2001, and a jury convicted her husband for the killing in 2003. The Staircase, a Netflix docuseries, addresses Michael Peterson’s trial, his life and legal choices after his conviction, and his eight years in prison (including too much screen time with his adoring family members).

Peterson is not an altogether sympathetic character. He seems to be a loving dad, but he’s also pretty awkward—the kind of guy who hires a French filmmaker to document everything he does in the aftermath of his wife’s death. He’s also bisexual, kept gay pornography on his computer, and solicited men for sex. The series contains strong language, flashes of pornography, and some gruesome details.

But most of us would like to think that, if we were in Michael Peterson’s position, certain processes would be in place. That evidence would be handled properly, that testing would be replicable—that we would be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

In this case, the state of North Carolina withheld, lied about, and possibly even wiped away evidence that might have exculpated Michael Peterson.

One intriguing theory the docuseries doesn’t address but has been swirling around the internet: Kathleen’s lacerations may have been inflicted by an owl attack.

“I don’t know the meaning of life,” Michael says in the series, reflecting on the last time he saw Kathleen alive. “I wouldn’t call it nonsense. … I just don’t get it. What happens seems to be … random. It just happens.”