Why ‘The Staircase’ Subject Was Able To Leave Prison Long Before His Legal Battle Was Over


The 2004 true crime documentary series The Staircase premiered June 8 on Netflix, along with three brand new episodes that follow the latest developments in the case of Kathleen Peterson's death. At one point in the series, the length of time Michael Peterson wore an ankle monitoring bracelet after being released from prison is commented upon as being unusual. Viewers may be questioning whether there's a maximum amount of time that these devices can be worn.

On Dec. 9, 2001, according to CNN, Michael's wife Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in her home. Though he continues to maintain that he is innocent, Michael was convicted in 2003 of her murder and sentenced to life in prison. Per the News & Observer, the prosecution claimed that Michael had corresponded with a male sex worker, and that he and Kathleen had argued about it. In The Staircase, Michael says that Kathleen knew that he was bisexual and that she was fine with him soliciting sex outside of their marriage. Michael’s defense attorneys asserted that the crime scene was contaminated prior to examination by the police, and that the motives put forth by the prosecution were unfounded.


In 2011, per ABC11, Peterson was released from prison after Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson ruled that the blood splatter analysis expert during the original trial, Duane Deaver, might have given misleading testimony during his time on the stand. As viewers can see in The Staircase, Peterson was given an ankle-monitoring bracelet to wear and ordered under house arrest until he would stand trial again. According to the documentary, Peterson wore his ankle-monitoring bracelet for 937 days — that’s about two-and-a-half years of being constantly watched, constantly stuck in your own house. When Peterson’s lawyers pushed forth a hearing for their client to be allowed to take that bracelet off, the court’s monitoring expert said, “I don’t believe we’ve had anyone on monitoring for this long.” Though Kathleen’s sisters claimed that Peterson was a flight risk, the judge determined that Peterson wasn’t going to flee, that he should stay away from his late wife’s family, and that he could finally take off the bracelet. In 2017, per ABC7, Peterson entered the Alford plea to a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, which allowed him to maintain his innocence while acknowledging the strength of the case against him. His time already served was more than enough to cover that sentence, so he was set free — without a monitor of any kind — last year.

According to the Brookings Institute, most offenders that wear ankle monitors are on probation. A Pew study reported that the number of active monitoring devices jumped 140% from 2005 to 2015, so there are many out there with these machines pinging their coordinates to their monitors. The bracelet works via radio signals that are sent from the ankle device to a base monitoring unit in an offender’s home. If you get too far away from that base, the device sends an alert to the proper authorities. Some also rely on modern GPS communication. But as the Brookings Institute reports, the devices are prone to failing, with batteries dying and incorrect alerts due to wrong coordinates.


According to Mother Jones, some can spend about two years under home detention with an ankle bracelet if the crime is severe enough, so Michael’s two-and-a-half years isn’t out of the ordinary. That said, it is a very, very long time to keep a person under lock and key if he or she isn’t a risk for fleeing the country or hurting someone else. Though not unheard of, Michael Peterson’s monitoring as seen in The Staircase was still extreme, and it was surely a relief to him and those around him when it was finally taken off in 2014.