The newest addition to the Netflix true-crime repertoire, The Staircase, premieres June 8 on the service, but the first episodes actually date back to 2004. The series follows the case of Michael Peterson, who, after serving several years in prison, has recently been set free. (The three new episodes coming to Netflix along with the existing ones will tell that part of the story.) Why was Michael Peterson released from prison? This case has taken many turns over the years.
Though Peterson was found guilty of murdering his wife Kathleen Peterson and sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2003, per The Associated Press, he was released from prison in 2011 and granted a new trial. And in 2017 he entered the Alford plea to a voluntary manslaughter charge. That plea allows the accused to maintain their innocence — as Peterson always has — while also acknowledging that the prosecution has enough evidence to possibly convict. That plea allowed him to walk free permanently, because of time already served, according to the same report.
According to CNN, the former novelist was released from prison in 2011 by Judge Orlando Hudson after he ruled that the jury on the 2003 trial had received misleading information about bloodstain evidence. Judge Hudson ruled that North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation agent Duane Deaver had "conducted unscientific experiments and misled the jury about his experience and credentials," during his testimony at the Peterson trial per The News & Observer, and granted Peterson a new trial. Deaver had also failed to report the results of blood tests which could have assisted the case of Greg Taylor, an innocent man who spent 19 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder, per the same News & Observer report. Deaver was fired by the State Bureau of Investigation.
Deaver's misleading testimony formed a key part of the prosecution's case against Peterson, because it was bloodsplatter at the scene of Kathleen's death that first caused law enforcement to view her death as a murder, rather than a tragic accident. Police Sargent Fran Borden, who was on the scene after Peterson called 911 to report his wife's "accident", testified that he found the immense amount of blood surrounding Kathleen Peterson's body suspicious for someone who had merely fallen down the stairs, per CNN. ""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 reports Borden testified. "It didn't jibe. It didn't fit."
But when Deaver reportedly gave untruthful testimony about the blood evidence at the scene, it called the entire verdict of the trial into doubt, leading Judge Hudson to grant Peterson a new trial. But that trial never came to court. Instead, Peterson and his legal team came to an agreement with the prosecution. 2017 Peterson pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter using the Alford plea, according to The News & Observer. After using the Alford plea, Peterson was sentenced to fewer years in prison than the eight years he had already served, so he was able to walk away from the courthouse a free man, the report states.
But though Peterson has maintained his innocence over the years, not everyone is convinced that he deserves to walk free, or had no involvement in the death of his wife. “It’s great that Michael Peterson finally acknowledges in court that there is enough evidence to convict him,” Lori Campbell, Kathleen Peterson's sister, said outside the courthouse following the plea, as reported by News & Observer. “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.”
Kathleen's other sister, Candace Zamperini, had even harsher words for her former brother-in-law. “The words Alford plea, they’re meaningless. Alford, Schmalford, means nothing. It means guilty,” Zamperini said according to News & Observer. “It means nothing. It means guilt. ...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.”
So though Michael Peterson is now a free man, though it's not without controversy. With the Netflix release of the acclaimed documentary covering the case, true crime fans all over the country will be able to follow all the twists and turns of this exhausting battle.