Durham, North Carolina

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Than Fiction:
Trial Commentary

Peterson Case


"De Lestrade says as he looked back at the trial during the editing process he became convinced that the prosecution was using the new conservatism championed by George Bush to attack what it saw as abnormal."
-- Nick Fraser, BBC

"At one point during the trial we see the deputy district attorney thumping the table as she labels the gay pornography on Peterson's computer 'pure filth.' Watching this scene again during editing, de Lestrade says he asked himself if it was still modern times and not 'back when they were burning witches.'"
-- Nick Fraser, BBC

"Kathleen's daughter Caitlin changed her mind after the police told her about her stepfather's bi-sexuality."
-- Lestrade

Poncet and Lestrade
2002 Oscar

On the BBC's website, the Storyville Series Editor, Nick Fraser, says Maha's documentary features, "Twists, turns and astounding revelations." Fraser goes on to write of the deeper intention behind Lestrade's thriller:

"But Death on the Staircase has something else -- it examines whether juries are ever capable of reaching a verdict based on more-or-less objective considerations. Can it be that jurors are merely motivated by their own prejudices?"

Lestrade's answer to Mr. Fraser's question is a frightening, six-hour-long -- "YES."

Jean-Xavier says he believes prejudice motivated an entire city in the case of North Carolina v Michael Peterson, and he has two years of video-taped documentation to prove it. After careful consideration, Lestrade has determined that the Durham jury focused only on the defendant's bisexuality, and premeditated Peterson's guilt based on their fearful hatred of someone who dares to be different.

"The bisexuality played a major role in the case."

"They couldn't imagine that Michael and Kathleen could live a happy life and be a happy couple with Michael having some gay encounters. To them that was unbelievable, it was out of their minds. They are very narrow-minded."

"For sure the bisexuality card was played by the prosecution to show that Michael Peterson was a bad person. A way to say to the jury: 'Be careful, he is a deviant! He had a secret life, so everything he will tell could be a lie, and everything we can tell could be true.'"

According to the French filmmaker, the easily duped people of Durham are not only anti-gay, they're anti-semitic as well. Jean-Xavier suggests that the ordinary, Durham citizens chosen to serve on Peterson's jury found him guilty, in part, because Peterson's attorney happened to be Jewish. His charge that twelve jurors sworn to uphold the law, relied instead on their own religious bigotry to convict a fellow citizen is outrageous, and yet Lestrade writes:

"David Rudolf at the end of the trial was very confident. But he forgot that he was in a North Carolina Courthouse and he was a Jewish lawyer from New York. Of course he is smarter than Jim Hardin, of course he is a much better lawyer... But he showed that in front of the jury, and that was not a very clever attitude."

"David Rudolf forgot at some point that he will always be seen has an outsider (the Jewish lawyer from New York) in Durham."

David Rudolf has never expressed any such concerns about the town he's lived and worked in for well over a decade. If the voir dire process revealed a jury pool of wackos with extreme views, it was Mr. Rudolf's legal duty to object to the entire proceeding, on the record, and petition for an immediate dismissal.

Peterson's attorney made no objections to the people of Durham or the judicial system in Durham County.

The truly ironic thing is that Jean-Xavier de Lestrade is guilty of the very crime he claims others are committing. Making broad assumptions and sweeping generalizations about a group of people based on the area in which they live, is the very definition of prejudice. Such intolerance goes beyond "close-minded" when a person creates a film with the expressed purpose of bringing their bigoted views to the world. What was personal becomes political:

"It is obvious to me that the values the prosecution upholds mirror those defended by George W Bush. They are the values of an intolerant, close-minded America that can only see things in black or white, good or evil. If we don't meet the standards of good, then we can only be evil."

Lestrade's movie purports to expose the homophobic mass-hysteria he finds not only in Durham, or in North Carolina, but in much of the nation -- a place which Lestrade mysteriously calls, "that part of America." His absurd paranoia and political bias speaks for itself:

"That part of America cannot allow chaos or absurdity in life; it cannot accept flukes or coincidences. Everything must be orderly and reasonable. You can understand how someone as complex and cultivated as Michael Peterson could not fit into this view of the world. He and his way of life had to be destroyed."

Needless to say, long before the residents of Durham conspired to destroy Mike Peterson, they built up the high-profile citizen. Along with writing a regular editorial column for the Herald-Sun newspaper, Peterson, graduate of Duke, was also an out-spoken politician who ran for city council and mayor. Lies about his military record and other unfortunate gaffs kept Peterson out of office, but that didn't stop him from continuing to espouse his points of view on his popular website -- "Hizzoner.com."

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade may have seen a hateful town filled with narrow-minded morons, but Mike Peterson certainly didn't view things that way. Over the years, Peterson has repeatedly said how much he loves Durham. Months before the verdict, reporters asked Michael if he planned to remain in Forest Hills should he be cleared of the murder charge.

"I'm such a part of Durham," he reflected. "I just don't know. Now there are such terrible memories here. But there are also so many people who are so supportive. I love this house. Kathleen loved this house. It's a real dilemma."

The sad truth is, Peterson destroyed his own way of life. Much of that way of life had to do with the town he embraced so often in speeches and in writing. Muckraker, millionaire, mayor wanna-be Mike Peterson and his mansion, truly is a part of Durham -- and now, so is his murder.

Durham didn't bring Mike down -- au contraire -- Peterson disgraced Durham.

Now, with Peterson permanently shut up in prison, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade seems determined to continue Hizzoner's dishonest campaign.

Quotes from Peterson's online column:

Feb 16, 2001
"We haven't learned to face reality. Instead, we want to point fingers and say the system is racist."

March 9, 2001
"The only conclusion I can draw when someone withholds information is that they are afraid of that information; they are hiding something."

April 18, 2001
"Little pieces of information about the debacle that is Durham city government have been leaking out for quite a while but now we have enough pieces to see the true dimensions of the disaster."

May 25, 2001
"Now it's time to take back our city and our finances. It's time to hold our leaders accountable."

December 28, 2001
"Twas the night before Christmas, but all was not still, or quiet or well, either. Twenty four of us are in Durham County jail, Pod 3C."