2004, 2013, 2018, TV

The Staircase (2004, 2013, 2018)

Full disclosure: I am very biased when it comes to these types of stories. For a number of years I’ve been listening to wrongful conviction podcast called Undisclosed. I have listened to a number of other podcasts with similar themes. So I am more predisposed than ever to side with the defense over the prosecution, all other things being equal. Additionally, Undisclosed has made me aware of a rash of cases in the United States where accidents have been treated as homicides even though the evidence does not suggest homicide (particularly in relation to Infant Sudden Death Syndrome, drowning, and death by fire). So, let’s just say I’m biased when it comes to a case in which a government is trying to convict someone of murder who maintains it was an accident.


The first mini series is about the death of Kathleen Peterson and the trial of husband for murder. It is an in depth look – at times too in depth as the series could be a little tighter, especially the episode where they exhume the body. But I think they are trying to make a point about the process, and it’s not one a I disagree with.

There are some strange things about this case, to be sure. And I guess if you are repulsed by someone being semi in the closet or you’re really into the meaning of coincidence, you maybe think he did it. But the crazy coincidence in this case that the state wants to portray as really meaningful but it means accepting that the German authorities did a terrible job and assuming that the Medical Examiner’s conclusion is unbiased.

I don’t think he did it but that’s not the point. The point is, rather, that there is a ton of reasonable doubt in this case. Just a ton. Whether it’s with the
“weapon”, with the conclusion it was an assault (with the issues with the blood spatter and with the photos), or with any number of other things. Yes the version of the trial is biased in favour of the defense because it’s clear the filmmakers are on his side, but we see (parts of) the trial, and there is a lot of doubt.

This becomes only more apparent in the first of the sequel series, in which we learn that the State’s principal expert is now known to have regularly altered his tests to favour the prosecution. And not only that, he wasn’t much of an expert, period.

You may think Michael Peterson killed his wife. But I cannot understand how anyone can look at this case – especially with the revelations about the state’s principal expert – and not have reasonable doubt. Because, folks, this case is dog shit. There’s no proof that she didn’t fall. And that’s supposed to be enough to keep someone out of jail. It isn’t, but it’s supposed to be.

But you only really need to watch the first part of this series, or perhaps the second. You can easily read about what happened in the appeals. I say this because the sequels focus much more on the family interactions and decisions about appeals, than the evidence. So those parts are kind of incidental unless you want “closure” on the case. For me the real value is in the original series and how it shows that even a rich white man can get railroaded by the US justice system.


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