According to CNN, Michael Peterson claimed that, on Dec. 9, 2001, he found his wife Kathleen Peterson dead at the bottom of the stairs in their home. But weeks later, he was indicted and charged with her murder; and two years later, Michael Peterson was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison. Michael maintained his innocence, as the prosecution brought forth evidence meant to support possible motives. But one of the most controversial aspects of Michael Peterson’s murder trial was the focus on his bisexuality. In fact, some trial footage in The Staircase docuseries about the case may shock some viewers.
Peterson served eight years before he was given a new trial in 2011, based on misleading testimony given in the first trial, and, in 2017, he was freed after entering an Alford plea to a charge of voluntary manslaughter, per WRAL, This plea allows defendants to maintain their innocence while still acknowledging that the prosecution's case is strong enough to convict. The judge gave Peterson credit for the years he already served, so Peterson was released.
As reported in the News & Observer, the prosecution in Michael’s original trial were unable to produce a murder weapon, but they attempted to establish motive — according to the their case, the Petersons' marriage wasn’t as happy as it seemed from the outside. Michael's bisexuality was a topic of conversation in the courtoom. The prosecution asserted that he had searched for gay porn on his computer and later deleted it before police could search his drive. He also had interest in hiring a male sex worker for sexual encounters. According to CNN, the escort, Brent Wolgamott, testified in court that though Michael reached out for an encounter, Wolgamott stood him up and Michael never again contacted him. The prosecution alleged that Michael and Kathleen had quarreled about Michael’s bisexuality and interest in men, and that Michael had killed his late wife because of it.
In The Staircase, though, Peterson insists that Kathleen was “comfortable” with his bisexuality. They didn’t talk about it, but it was, “an oblique kind” of acceptance that Kathleen and Michael had in their relationship, he claims. When asked by filmmakers in 2017 if his bisexuality and the allegations surrounding it had helped to determine the guilty verdict in his trial, Peterson answers, “Of course that had to have an impact! Why does that translate into murder? It made no sense at all, but it certainly went, there it is in the juror’s head."
In his youth, Peterson recounts in The Staircase, he realized he was bisexual. He says:
"It was part of who… who I was trying not to reveal. Well, you get to a certain points… and let’s be honest here. It was the shortstop on my baseball team…I was really confused. What’s this all about? I had never before that time ever had… male thoughts, and then suddenly, he was there. In that fantasy. And I was very confused by that, but it didn’t go away from my fantasies. And I realized at that time, I felt a great attraction for females, but for guys, also."
Peterson speaks in the final episode of the series of how he hid his sexuality while he was in the military because "that was not going to happen." He claims he kept it all under wraps because of peer pressure and wanting to seem "normal" to those around him. Peterson says that he could have been more honest with Kathleen about his openness toward both women and men. "This is the first time I'm talking about it," Michael says, explaining that it is not easy to open up when you are used to keeping secrets.
David Rudolf, Michael’s attorney, insists that Kathleen and Michael had a great marriage, despite his extracurricular relationships. “That was the truth. They had the kind of marriage that everybody wants to have. We interviewed dozens of their friends. Dozens,” he says in The Staircase. “And every one of them said the same thing — they got along great. They never argued. They were two peas in a pod.”
The prosecutors seem to attempt to equate Michael’s bisexuality with being untrustworthy. According to ABC News, Freda Black, the assistant district attorney at the time of the trial, said in the courtroom, “According to the persons that know [Kathleen] well … she would have been infuriated at learning that her husband, who she truly loved, was bisexual and having an extramarital relationship not with another woman but even with a man, which would be humiliating and embarrassing to her. We believe that once she learned this information, that an argument ensued and a homicide occurred."
In the final episode of The Staircase, filmed in 2017, Judge Orlando Hudson says that he would not have let Peterson's bisexuality be admitted into his trial if that trial were to take place today. "Over the years, you can see how with time and more examination of the evidence that did come in, maybe [the trial] wasn’t without prejudice," he said. "There are things that I would have changed. All of the homosexual evidence…however it was used, would have been unduly prejudicial to the defense."
According to Psychology Today, the idea that people who identify as bisexual are more promiscuous or untrustworthy simply isn’t true. But would Peterson's sexuality have been a point of discussion in 2018? It’s still a possibility. Per Psychology Today, in 2013 — only five years ago — a University Of Pittsburgh study showed that both straight and gay people had a negative connotation of bisexuals, and “many showed little sympathy" for them.
One would hope that in today’s world, sexual orientation wouldn’t be used as evidence of an unrelated crime. But though it has advanced in many ways, the trial of Michael Peterson on The Staircase shows that the justice system still has a long way to go to be completely unbiased.