In 2001, Kathleen Peterson was found dead in a pool of blood at the bottom of the staircase in her home. Two years later, her husband Michael Peterson was convicted of her murder — but many believe he didn’t do it.
In 2018, Netflix released The Staircase, a documentary that catapulted a regional North Carolina murder mystery to national attention. Focusing on the trial of Michael Peterson, who prosecutors alleged killed his wife, Kathleen Peterson, after a vicious fight in 2001, the documentary charts his defense team’s preparations through his conviction, appeals, and ultimate plea deal.
Ultimately, Peterson entered an Alford plea to a lesser manslaughter charge, asserting his innocence while acknowledging that the state had enough evidence to convince a jury of his guilt and convict him. In 2017, he was released on time served and is today a free man.
As Peterson himself said of the trial, “This has become a show.” And indeed, the case is full of twists and bizarre theories surrounding the real story of Kathleen Peterson’s death — including the possibility that an owl is to blame for her tragic death.
And now, the Petersons’ story is once again being relitigated in the dramatized HBO Max series The Staircase, starring Colin Firth and Toni Colette. But is Michael Peterson as innocent as he claims?
How Kathleen Peterson Died Mysteriously At Her Home
Early in the morning on Dec. 9, 2001, Michael Peterson called emergency services to report that his wife, Kathleen Peterson, had taken a fall down a set of stairs in their home in Durham, North Carolina.
Kathleen had been drinking wine and had taken Valium, Michael later asserted, and he hadn’t seen her for hours after she went inside the house while he remained outside reading. Only once he went inside at 2:30 a.m, did he discover Kathleen barely alive in a pool of blood at the bottom of the back staircase. He called 911 10 minutes later.
According to Esquire, during the call Peterson made to 911, he stated, “My wife had an accident. She’s still breathing. She fell down the stairs.” But by the time the emergency medical services and police arrived, Kathleen Peterson was dead.
The autopsy immediately cast doubt on Michael Peterson’s story. According to the report, Kathleen had suffered multiple blunt force trauma injuries to the head and neck. As a result, she bled to death between 90 minutes and two hours after the trauma occurred.
The autopsy led the police to classify the death as a homicide. Since Michael Peterson was the only one at home at the time, he was the obvious suspect. The stage was set for one of the longest, strangest trials in American history.
The evidence against Peterson was spotty. But the investigators were confident that Kathleen had been murdered. While there was no obvious murder weapon on the scene that police could tie to her husband, the prosecutors believed that they could establish a motive.
During the investigation, detectives discovered that Michael Peterson was secretly hiding his bisexuality. They discovered a collection of gay pornography in his possession, and found that he had been emailing with a 28-year-old male escort, according to CNN.
Though there was little evidence to support the idea, prosecutors latched on to the theory that Peterson’s wife had found out about her husband’s sexuality and started a fight that led to her death on the staircase.
Inside Michael Peterson’s Twisting Murder Trial
The district attorney brought the case to trial with a purported motive and the evidence that Kathleen Peterson had been murdered. Michael Peterson’s sexuality was a crucial component of the prosecution’s case. And they called even the escort with whom Peterson had been communicating to the stand.
Then, halfway through the trial, a new theory emerged that could tie Peterson to another suspicious death at the bottom of a staircase.
Peterson spent years in the military and had been stationed in West Germany during the 1980s. There, he and his first wife met a woman named Elizabeth Ratliff. On Nov. 24, 1985, Peterson was visiting with Ratliff to help put her children to bed. The following day she was found dead at the bottom of a staircase.
According to the German authorities, Ratliff died of a stroke. She had been known to suffer from frequent headaches. The Petersons adopted Ratliff’s children and took them back to the United States. For the next several years, the incident was all but forgotten.
But Margaret Blair, Ratliff’s sister, placed a call to the investigators as soon as she heard that Kathleen Peterson had also died at the bottom of a staircase.
“I said, ‘Are you aware that the same thing happened to [Elizabeth Ratliff] and Michael Peterson was the last one to be with her?'” she told NBC.
Ratliff’s body was exhumed in Texas and transported to North Carolina for a second autopsy that concluded she had been murdered. There was nothing concrete to tie Peterson to this murder, but the similarities between the two deaths were apparent.
Ultimately, it was enough to convince the jury. Michael Peterson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 2003 for the murder of his wife.
How Michael Peterson Successfully Appealed For His Release
According to Michael Peterson, the trial was a farce from the beginning. The prosecution had “stacked the odds” against him, he told The News & Observer. Though he was originally sentenced to life in prison, many appeals began soon after.
His lawyers advanced some interesting theories to support his case during the appeal process. In 2010, The Durham News reported that they submitted three affidavits from experts stating that an owl had done it.
According to the theory, Kathleen was attacked by an owl the night of her death and ran back inside only to fall and knock herself out on the bottom step. The combination of trauma from the fall and blood loss from the owl attack made her lose consciousness and led to her death.
But as far-fetched as the hypothesis sounds, there is compelling evidence to support the owl theory of Kathleen Peterson’s death.
The experts who wrote the affidavits admitted that Kathleen’s injuries could be consistent with an owl attack. Some of her cuts resembled tridents, a shape similar to what would have been made by a talon’s grasp. And Peterson’s lawyer said that the crime lab had recovered a feather from her body and that her hair had traces of cedar needles and wood in it.
In 2011, eight years after his original conviction, Peterson was released from prison after it became clear that one of the forensic analysts for the prosecutors had committed perjury during his trial, misleading the jury about how qualified he was. And according to The News & Observer, the analyst also used questionable methods in obtaining results favorable to the prosecution.
That year, Michael Peterson was granted a new trial and released on bail.
The Real Story Of Michael Peterson And ‘The Staircase’
In 2017, Michael Peterson entered an Alford plea, whereby he maintained his innocence but admitted the district attorney had sufficient evidence to convict him. Taking into account the eight years Peterson had already served, the judge ordered his release.
According to Peterson, taking the plea was a hard choice. He said that he’d decided to take it after his son told him, “You’ll never win. Pick up your chips and go home.”
“I can live with this,” Michael Peterson told WRAL in 2017. “It’s not fair. It’s not right. I’m innocent, and yet I’ve got this verdict there.”
Kathleen’s sister, Lori Campbell, felt differently. “It’s wrong that, after a jury sentenced him to life in prison for the murder of his wife, he gets to be a free man while Kathleen lies in her grave,” she said in a statement.
Michael Peterson moved into a two-bedroom condo, where he said he planned to begin writing again and visiting with his family. As of December 2020, he independently published a COVID-19-themed novel called Santa’s Pandemic Cruise.
After this look at the crime behind The Staircase, read about Mitchell Quy, who murdered his wife and then had the media follow him while he “looked” for her.