Why The Family In 'The Staircase' Is Still Divided Over Michael Peterson's Guilt


With all of pop culture's obsession with true crime, the collateral damage these cases can wreak sometimes gets lost in the conversation. Netflix's The Staircase examines the real-life case of novelist Michael Peterson, who in 2003 was convicted of murder in the death of his wife Kathleen Peterson, according to the Associated Press. But while the fascinating miniseries — like most true crime stories — focuses on the investigation, the evidence, the theories, and questions of guilt or innocence, the fates of the family members who exist on the periphery of the case can too easily be forgotten. Where are Kathleen Peterson's sisters now?

On Dec. 9, 2001, Michael Peterson called 911 to report that he had found Kathleen bleeding and unconscious at the bottom of the stairs in their Durham, North Carolina, home, WRAL News reported at the time. After suspicions were raised, Peterson was arrested and ultimately convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, as Newsweek reported.

Not all of Kathleen's family members agree on Peterson's guilt. Both of Peterson's biological sons, Clayton and Todd, have remained by their father's side, convinced of his innocence, as they told the News & Observer in 2016. According to the Associated Press, Peterson also has the support of his two adopted daughters, Margaret and Martha, the children of his former neighbor Elizabeth Ratliff, who was also found dead at the bottom of a staircase in 1985, per the News & Observer. Peterson was never charged in her death.

The documentary shows that Kathleen's daughter Caitlin Atwater initially stood by her stepfather before being convinced of his guilt during the 2003 trial; according to WRAL News, she filed a wrongful death suit against Peterson in civil court in 2007, ultimately settling with him for $25 million.

As for Kathleen's sisters, Candace Zamperini and Lori Campbell, they each hold steadfast in their conviction that Peterson is to blame for Kathleen's death, per the News & Observer. According to CNN's reports at the time, Zamperini was a key witness for the prosecution during Peterson's original 2003 trial, testifying to motive — Zamperini claimed the couple was worried about money — and method — focusing on a supposedly missing fireplace poker she had given her sister as a gift. (The poker was eventually found in the garage, per ABC News.)

In 2011, the judge in Peterson's first trial vacated the verdict, citing problems in a blood analyst's lab work, and released Peterson pending a new trial, according to News & Observer. In 2017, according to the same News & Observer report, both Zamperini and Campbell spoke at Peterson's hearing. Peterson entered an Alford plea — an agreement that allowed him to admit there was enough evidence to convict him, while still maintaining his innocence. Peterson pleaded guilty to manslaughter but went free on time served. According to the News & Observer, Campbell expressed frustration at the outcome:

"It's great that Michael Peterson finally acknowledges in court that there is enough evidence to convict him. Yet it's wrong that after a jury sentenced him to life in prison for the murder of his wife that he gets to be a free man while Kathleen lies in her grave. Closure is for a door, not for my murdered sister."

Zamperini said she found some justice in the hearing, per the News & Observer:

"The words Alford plea, they're meaningless. Alford, Schmalford, means nothing. It means guilty. …You are pleading to voluntary manslaughter. You will be treated as guilty for murdering my sister Kathleen, and you will be a convicted felon forever. This hearing today is as close to justice as anything that I think can be found. Not perfect justice, but justice."

According to the News & Observer, Zamperini also had harsh words for the French filmmaking crew that was given access to Peterson while filming The Staircase.

When new episodes of The Staircase hit Netflix on June 8, it will be up to the audience to form their own opinions on Kathleen Peterson's death and the work of the film crew who, despite Zamperini's complaints, documented the case.