Kim Kizyma
Graphic Designer + Creative Technologist

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Staircase spoiler alert

Yesterday I finally finished the Netflix true-crime documentary series The Staircase. It’s one of those ones where once you start, you really just want to finish it all in one sitting but the episodes are long. There’s a lot of details and information, too, as most other true-crime shows also offer.

Basically the show is an inside look into the 2005 North Carolina murder case of Kathleen Peterson, the victim.  Her husband, Michael, said that she fell down the staircase and ultimately bled to death after drinking some wine, champagne, and taking a Valium. However, skepticism arose. There were 7 lacerations in her skull which seems like an awful lot for a fall down the stairs. The DA offered the idea that Michael beat her over the head with a blow poke, then called the police saying she fell; however, there was no DNA evidence and no true weapon found. Motive? Well, it’s a bit of a stretch, but critics say Michael’s bisexuality and his relationships with men during the marriage was coming to light and he didn’t want Kathleen to know. Michael claims Kathleen knew and was fine with it. We can’t know at this point, but either way, that’s essentially the “motive” the DA tried to push throughout the course of their time on the stand.

There is also an eerie coincidence brought up that a close friend named Elizabeth Ratliff—whose two orphaned daughters were adopted by Peterson and his first wife, Patty, were raised later by him and Kathleen—was found dead in 1985 in a very similar situation, at the foot of a staircase. This instance, however, was said to be a stroke. 

“If The Starcase proves one thing, it’s that the arc of the legal system is long as hell, and doesn’t always bend toward justice. It also proves that cases as long as this one don’t necessarily ever bring closure.” 

The thing that I found most interesting or alarming in terms of Michael and his attitude throughout the documentary, is that he never really repeatedly declared his innocence or asked for help finding the truth of what happened that night to his beloved wife, Kathleen. Those are red flags to me as a viewer. But even with those thoughts, I still, if I were on that jury, wouldn’t feel comfortable voting “guilty” as the DA (in my opinion) did not prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. There are still questions that need answers, and unfortunately, I do not think we can ever get them.

The irony of the two falling/dying at the foot of a staircase is too much for me. A large portion of the trial was debating whether that information was admissable in court. The judge ultimately voted yes. That definitely didn’t help Michael’s case. 

There are also elements in the prosecution’s case, including the fact that the Peterson’s had financial issues that may have been motivated by Michael’s interest in Kathleen’s life insurance policy, which the show doesn’t really address in any significance. 

It’s also notable that the show does not focus much on the victim at all. The entire documentary is about Michael, and the debate of whether he’s a murder or a victim.  It also sheds substantial light on the reality that just because you are on the stand does not mean you won’t lie.

There's also a really cynical portion where parts of Michael's writings are shared. They are chillingly parallel to this situation in some senses.

kk