It's easy to get swept up in true-crime stories, especially well-produced and structured documentaries like The Staircase premiering on Netflix on June 8, but not everyone considers these stories entertainment. What does Kathleen Peterson's family think about The Staircase? Her sisters' comments on the series are a stark reminder that behind every true crime documentary are real people dealing with grief.
Kathleen Peterson's 2001 death has become an internationally known case, thanks in part to the success of the 2004 television series The Staircase, which explored the subsequent investigation and trial. The show is now being released on Netflix with three new episodes, 14 years after the series' premiere.
Kathleen's husband Michael Peterson was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life without parole in 2003, according to CNN. But Peterson has always maintained that he is innocent, and in 2011, he was granted a new trial and released, due to misleading evidence presented during the original trial by one of the prosecution's experts, per another CNN piece. In 2017, Peterson entered the Alford plea for a charge of voluntary manslaughter. This is a plea that means the defendant maintains their innocence, but acknowledges that there is sufficient evidence to convict them, per News & Observer. Since his sentencing for this new charge was less than the amount of time he had already spent in prison, Peterson was allowed to walk free.
The documentary is not credited with being the cause of Michael Peterson's release, but Kathleen Peterson's sisters and daughter have claimed that the documentary helped Michael mold opinions about the case.
Kathleen's sister, Candace Zamperini, spoke at Michael Peterson's plea hearing in February of 2017 on behalf of Kathleen's other sister Lori Campbell, and Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen's daughter from a previous marriage. Camperini took aim at the people who she felt were preventing justice from being done, including Michael himself and his attorney David Rudolf. But she also spoke about the difficulties of having her sister's murder trial be turned into a documentary.
At his plea hearing, as shown in the documentary, Zamperini said that she found it odd that "a French film company that wanted to make a psuedo-documentary about my sister's murder without my family's cooperation or consent." She continued, "Why did a foreign film company care and want to talk with me and my family about Kathleen's death?" (Zamperini presumably referred to the series director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and Maha Productions.) Zamperini suggested that The Staircase was not an objective piece of filmmaking, but instead became a tool that Michael Peterson used to his own benefit. She said:
"Michael Peterson was not satisfied, in my opinion, with murdering my sister. Now, his ultimate vanity project would begin. He would have a movie made that he could pontificate — he could tell everyone, all of you, how incompetent the Durham police and justice system was. He could proclaim in this film, again, his complete innocence."
Zamperini went on to single out specific moments in the documentary that featured Michael Peterson making comments that she believes disparaged her and his step-daughter Caitlin, for not believing that he was innocent. She said:
"The Staircase film was made — and twice episodes were used to threaten and scare Kathleen's daughter and myself. Michael Peterson states in the film, 'If not for Candace and Caitlin Atwater, I would not be here in a courtroom,' and in Episode 8, filmed in the courtroom, Michael Peterson again clearly says, 'Candace just can't keep her f*cking mouth shut. I don't think I'd be here if she shut her mouth." These statements were threatening to me, and anyone for eternity can replay them on YouTube and that hurts me and that hurts my niece, and we did nothing to hurt you."
While Zamperini spent a lot of time in the hearing talking specifically about the effect that the documentary had on her, she ended her statements on the series by addressing the camera crew, who was present in the room, filming the plea hearing:
"You spend time and money to film Michael Peterson's documentary, you've been embarrassed and fully used by Michael Peterson, not the ending you thought you had. The correct ending to The Staircase is Michael Peterson was correctly charged with murder and he is pleading guilty today."
Kathleen Peterson's sister had a lot to say about the film, very little of it positive, yet de Lestrade acknowledged that her criticisms were important to the case, and the documentary itself. In the Netflix press notes for The Staircase, de Lestrade says, "After we came back to the story of Michael Peterson, The Staircase documentary was now itself part of the story." de Lestrade explains that the crew "did reach out to [Zamperini] and [Campbell] many, many times over the years but they were never willing to speak with us. We really wanted to include their perspective in The Staircase and it’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to."
Bustle reached out to Netflix, and the company declined to give additional comment.
While Kathleen Peterson's sisters and daughter believe that Michael Peterson is guilty, not all of the Peterson family agrees. ABC News reports that Peterson's adoptive daughters, Margaret and Martha Ratliff, support their father — as does his son Clayton, who toldThe News & Observer that he maintains that his father is innocent in the case of Kathleen Peterson's death. His son Todd also appeared in early episodes of the documentary, supporting his father's defense.
Kathleen Peterson's sisters hadn't spoken publicly about the effect that The Staircase had on them until the 2017 plea hearing. Whether a conscious effort to ignore the documentary was made, or they simply hadn't been asked isn't clear. But they're certainly less pleased with the acclaimed series than the true crime fans eager to watch the story play out on Netflix.