The true crime tale that many were introduced to in the documentary series The Staircase is being given another moment in the spotlight as the focus of the Investigation Discovery series An American Murder Mystery: The Staircase. Per CNN, Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in her Durham, North Carolina home in 2001, and her husband Michael put on trial for her murder — both events throwing their shared family into disarray. But where are Michael Peterson's kids in 2018?
Per CBS News, Michael Peterson was tried and convicted of first-degree murder in 2003 and sentenced to life in prison. But Peterson has always maintained his innocence in his wife's death. The Associated Press reported that Superior Court Judge Orland Hudson vacated the verdict in 2011 based on a blood analyst's faulty testimony, granting Peterson the opportunity for a new trial. And in 2017, Peterson opted to use the Alford Plea in a manslaughter charge. (This plea allows a defendant to maintain their innocence while simultaneously acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to secure a conviction.) Peterson had served enough time by that point to account for the new manslaughter sentence, and is now a free man.
The same AP report notes that Michael Peterson has been supported throughout the legal battle by his two biological children from a previous marriage to Patricia Sue Peterson, Todd and Clay; and by his two adopted daughters, Martha and Margaret. A Vulture review of The Staircase points out that Peterson's "bright college-age kids can meet his (very expensive) attorney on the same intellectual terms," and identify them as a key part of their father's support system.
Before the 2017 plea deal that ultimately set him free, Peterson tried unsuccessfully in to have the charges against him dropped, per the AP. During a break in a 2016 hearing, Peterson's son Clay told reporters, according to The News & Observer, "I certainly would like an outcome where justice would be served." He affirmed that he and his siblings still maintain that Peterson was innocent in the death of their stepmother.
Now, Peterson's sons have families of their own. The News & Observer reported that Clay Peterson has two young children, and now lives in Maryland. Todd Peterson lives in Tennessee. Their father, per the AP, now lives in a condo in North Carolina.
Their sisters Martha and Margaret are the biological daughters of Peterson's friend and neighbor from when he lived in Germany, Elizabeth Ratliff. According to CNN, Ratliff was also found dead at the foot of a staircase after spending an evening with Peterson, back in 1985. She was originally thought to have died due to a cerebral hemorrhage, but an exhumation and subsequent examination of her body found that the cause of death was actually blunt force trauma, per The News & Observer.
While some believed that the similarities between these deaths cast more suspicion on Michael Peterson, the AP reported that Martha and Margaret still support Peterson to this day. Per The News & Observer, Martha lives in Colorado and Margaret lives in California. The women declined to share any more about their personal lives with the publication.
Peterson was not the only one who brought children from a previous marriage into his relationship with Kathleen. Caitlin Atwater was Kathleen's daughter from her first marriage, and though she initially supported her stepfather's claim to innocence, she ultimately switched her position on his guilt during the 2003 trial, per The News & Observer. In fact, Atwater filed a civil suit against her stepfather. According to WRAL.com, she and Michael Peterson settled for $25 million. "By entering into this agreement, I can only hope I'll be able to put some of this behind me," Atwater said at the time.
"The only thing that I have to say about the trial and all the subsequent fallout is that, if there was any closure to possibly come from all of this, it came after sitting through the entire trial and listening day after day to all the evidence — on both sides," Atwater shared in an interview with Indy Week about the 2003 murder trial. "And after the closing arguments, when all was said and done, I felt confident that I knew what happened. I knew what happened to my mom. While there's no true closure that can ever come for an event like this, for a loss this deep, I was ready to walk away and start moving forward with my life."
So most of the children he had a hand in raising are still standing beside Michael Peterson. Atwater is strong vocal exception. Whatever they believe occurred that night, hopefully all of them have been able to move on.