On the night of Dec. 9, 2001, 911 operators received a frantic call from Michael Peterson, about his wife Kathleen, per NBC News. "My wife's had an accident. She's still breathing," Peterson says on the recording of the 911 call. "She fell down the stairs. She's still breathing. Please come," Peterson continued. But in the years since, whether or not Kathleen Peterson's death was an accident has been heavily debated, in and out of courtrooms. What happened afterwards is the subject of the documentary The Staircase, coming to Netflix on June 8.
Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in the Durham, North Carolina home she shared with her husband, former novelist Michael Peterson. (They were home alone the night that she died.) And though in his call to 911 Peterson claimed that she had fallen down the stairs, CNN reported that law enforcement at the scene were suspicious after examining Kathleen's body and the blood that surrounded her. "I squatted in the stairwell and looked up the stairs, trying to visualize every possible scenario how this woman could have come down those stairs, landed in the position where she landed, and where did all that blood come from," CNN reported that sergeant Fran Borden testified during the 2003 trial in which Michael Peterson stood charged with murdering his wife. "It didn't jibe. It didn't fit," Borden's testimony continued. (Peterson has always maintained his innocence.)
Was Kathleen Peterson murdered at all or did she suffer a tragic accident? The debate raged during the 2003 trial. As WRAL News reported, the medical examiner who performed Kathleen Peterson's autopsy testified that Kathleen had died from a beating, not from an accident. "She had some, I believe, bruising and abrasions on the front of her face," the medical examiner Dr. Kenneth Snell said during his testimony, per WRAL. "She also had some bruises to the backs of her arms, from the elbow down to the backs of her hands." Based on the autopsy, Dr. Snell concluded that Peterson had died from an assault.
But a forensic scientist called to the stand by the defense disagreed with Snell's findings. According to another WRAL report, Dr. Henry Lee testified that it was very likely that Kathleen Peterson had fallen to her death, and that the blood splatter patterns on the wall could have been caused by her own actions, not a beating. "These medium-velocity patterns can be produced by coughing, sneezing, breathing, movement of the hair," WRAL reports that Lee testified. Though Lee conceded that he couldn't rule out the possibility that Kathleen had been attacked, the WRAL report shares that Lee believed that there was actually too much blood splatter to suggest that she had been beaten, and instead concluded that she had most likely fallen.
WRAL reported that during his own testimony, Lee called into question testimony given by the state's blood splatter expert Duane Deaver, dismissing the tests he had done as "child's play." "It's doesn't matter how many tests you do. You're not going to produce the same scene because this is a dynamic situation," Lee testified, per the outlet. "You can jump. You can beat a mannequin head. That's not real-life."
Lee's criticism of Deaver turned out to be well-founded. Though Peterson was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole at the end of the 2003 trial, in 2011 Judge Orlando Hudson granted Peterson a new trial after ruling that Deaver's original testimony had misled the jury. Deaver was fired by the State Bureau of Investigation due to his perjury during the Peterson trial and other issues, the News and Observer reports. So, while blood splatter evidence formed a key part of the prosecution's case that Kathleen Peterson had been murdered, Deaver's firing called into question the very notion that her death had been anything other than an accident.
Then, there's the owl theory. While Peterson was serving time in prison before he was granted a new trial, one of his lawyers, T. Lawrence Pollard, began filing affidavits to request access to information that would help prove the theory that an owl attack had been responsible for the death of Kathleen Peterson, per the News & Observer. The report states that according to a State Bureau of Investigation report, "a microscopic feather was found in Kathleen Peterson's hand with some of her hair." In addition, the autopsy revealed that Kathleen had several deep lacerations on the back of her scalp, lacerations that ornithological experts noted could have been consistent with that of a Barred Owl, a species native to Durham, per Audubon. Peterson's defense postulated that an owl attack caused Kathleen Peterson to fall to her death.
But neither the owl theory nor other arguments were compelling enough to save Peterson from having to go to trial once again, as in 2016 Judge Hudson refused the defense's requests to dismiss the charges against Peterson, per the News & Observer. In 2017, Peterson pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter using the Alford plea, which allows defendants to maintain their innocence while conceding that there was enough evidence against them to warrant a conviction, according to the News & Observer. His sentence for this charge was less time in prison than he had already served, so Peterson was able to walk free, according to the same report.
So though Peterson has technically been found guilty of his wife's death, the former novelist still maintains his innocence, and claims that Kathleen Peterson simply fell. The Staircase covers the case from the initial trial through to Peterson's release, giving true crime fans an inside look into all the twists and turns of the case, allowing viewers to form their own opinions about the nature of this mysterious death.