Michael Peterson Murder Trial

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Michael Peterson
Murder Trial

Michael Peterson


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Than Fiction:
Trial Commentary

Peterson Case


"I want to thank you all, not just for myself but for my client. I've seen lots of lawyers thank jurors in lots of trials. Lots of times it's not terribly sincere. I will tell you that this is a sincere thank you. I don't think I've ever seen a jury pay more attention, or work harder, or give up more than you all have. I believe in our system and our system wouldn't work without folks like you, and I really appreciate it."
-- defense attorney Rudolf's closing argument


"I think the thing that will stick with me the most is, I guess, the devastation of the Peterson family after the verdict."
-- juror, Shirley Farrell

On October 10, 2003, just before novelist, Michael Iver Peterson, was handcuffed and sent to jail for the rest of his life, his verdict was read aloud in a Durham, North Carolina courtroom: "We, the twelve members of the jury, find the defendant to be guilty of First Degree Murder."

Although the 60-year-old defendant had almost no reaction, his family and friends fell apart.

Peterson's brother, Bill, and sons, Clayton and Todd looked dejected. Margaret and Martha Ratliff, the two girls Michael had lived with but never adopted, loudly wept and wailed. Peterson's legal team appeared to be utterly spent.

The marathon 14-week trial that had everything from suspicious life insurance policies to dubious death certificates had taken its toll on everyone -- except Michael. He sheepishly smiled, turned to his family and mouthed the words, "It's okay. It's okay. I love you."

Michael knew there was no reasonable doubt he would be convicted of killing his wife.

Peterson diagram

Kathleen Hunt Atwater Peterson died in the very early morning hours of Sunday, December 9, 2001. Michael was the only person with her when she was found at the foot of a back staircase in the couple's expensive home.

Durham County prosecutors introduced Kathleen Peterson's autopsy into evidence and said it proved Michael had beaten his wife to death. They told jurors he posed her corpse in the stairwell, hoping to collect on a $1.4 million accidental death insurance payout.

The State said Peterson was having severe financial difficulties as well as troubles with his marriage. Evidence of Peterson's attempts to hire a male prostitute was presented.

Michael maintained his wife had accidentally fallen down the stairs after an evening of drinking in celebration of a movie deal for one of his books. To prove an "absence of accident," prosecutors introduced evidence of the 1985, Elizabeth Ratliff murder which Peterson similarly claimed was a stairway accident.

When the guilty verdict was read, defense lawyer David Rudolf immediately filed notice of appeal, citing the evidence of Peterson's affairs and the Ratliff murder as improper. Jurors in a post-verdict press conference, however, told reporters they discounted the 1985 murder and testimony about Peterson's bisexuality.

Staircase promo

A few weeks after the shocking and gruesome death of Michael Peterson's wife, he granted Jean-Xavier de Lestrade's film crew total access to his family. He also allowed Maha Films to record some of his private meetings with defense attorneys.

Asked about maintaining a professional distance in such a personal relationship, Lestrade told the BBC:

"Thanks to the trust-based relationship we established, I wasn't forced into the role of a voyeur, or a thief. The same thing went for my crew; my camera operator Isabelle Razavet, sound man Yves Grasso and I were perfectly able to integrate into this family that was falling apart. The mother dead, the father charged with her murder. We were no longer seen as the documentary crew, but rather as friends standing by in dramatic, hard times."

Although not known at the time, in 2018 it was revealed that Peterson had been in a long-term romantic relationship with the editor of the documentary, Sophie Brunet. Lestrade eventually confirmed that Brunet "fell in love" with Peterson while working on the project in 2002.

When asked about the affair by a reporter, Lestrade made the following remarks: "This is one of the incredible things that happened during those 15 years. Life is really full of surprises. They had a real story, which lasted until May 2017. But she never let her own feelings affect the course of editing."

Maybe. But, if it was all so above board -- why was the affair kept secret?

Director de Lestrade and producer Denis Poncet took more than 650 hours of Peterson videotape and sold it to several people in several formats using several different titles.

One of the Maha Films productions, a two-hour version, was purchased by ABC-TV and aired on American television under the title, The Stair Case. The same format appeared in France as Soupçons ("Suspicions"). BBC ran a six-part series called Death on the Staircase: Storyville.

Maha also sold an eight-hour version of Death on the Staircase to Canadian television, and then to the Sundance Channel as an eight-part documentary called The Staircase. In 2018, three new episodes were added -- and The Staircase was sold to Netflix.

De Lestrade's earlier cinematic critique of the US justice system, which won the 2002 Academy Award for best documentary feature, was variously known as The Ideal Culprit and Murder on a Sunday Morning.

Viciously, Relentlessly, Attacked