by plermpt

The Staircase (2004)

French television documentary about the trial of novelist Michael Petersen, accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen, after she was found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs in their Durham, North Carolina mansion in December, 2001. Google for a torrent.

Michael Petersen and wife, Kathleen


I am always reluctant to begin watching a television series bc I have little self control and always violate my one episode per day quota. Depending on consumption methodology, the best examples of serialized art forms are either  gobbled up in syndication or agonized over as they air week to week.

The Staircase is a naturally compelling case and Michael Petersen is suspiciously agreeable. He is neither pompous nor verbose, spooked but calm. He is introduced in the first minutes of the series by recalling the night Kathleen Petersen died, taking us on a tour from their post movie conversation in the living room to the poolside, where Kathleen retired to bed early. Michael’s alleged last words to her were, “Goodnight, I’ll be up a little bit later.”

I make assumptions he is guilty. When we hear his frantic calls to 911 I question my gut, but then when I see the police photos and the amount of blood on the walls and the stairs and beneath her head I go with my gut again. This won’t be fun, it’s clear he murdered her.

The prosecution smirks when they exhibit the lacerations on the shaved scalp of a postmortem Kathleen. “These injuries are not consistent with a fall down the stairs,” further positing that this is the work of the fireplace’s missing blow poke. I totally agree. I have no expertise in freak accidents or staircase murders meant to look like freak accidents, but I totally agree. There is blood everywhere.

The defense are cautiously confident, and I find myself aligning with them naturally despite my previous convictions because I like to side with the underdogs. They have also built quite a fucking case. Defense attorney David Rudolph’s handsome beard beautifully articulates reasons for Michael’s innocence. Nobody close with the Petersens, (including his two sons, two adopted daughters, step daughter, sister in-laws, and innumerable friends) can testify to Michael’s temper. Their portrayal of Michael remain as a kind, loving husband and father. His children remain loyal, but his in-laws and step daughters, although having given positive testimony on his behalf in the early stages of the case, turn apostate after the first episode. There is no sign of a struggle from Kathleen, and no blunt force trauma to her brain, an ailment consistent with every beating in the last ten years in the state of North Carolina as demonstrated by the reports he materializes during the trial. Kathleen was drunk, on Valium and walking up a narrow flight of stairs. Though both sides recreate the scene (prosecution with with plastic models of the staircase and defense with a 3D animation) Rudolph enlists the expertise of a Biomechanical engineer and forensic blood spatter specialist to support his claim, also mentioning that the prosecution still has not located the mysterious blow poke, which they claim from the start to be the murder weapon.

Some irrelevant secrets from Michael’s life serve as a roux and thicken the narrative: his private bisexuality; his exaggerated military experience. Debatably irrelevant to the case yet absolutely juicy for the documentary is the 1985 death of Elizabeth Ratliff. Here is the condensed story: Elizabeth was friend to Michael and his first wife while he was stationed in Germany and was also found dead at the bottom of a staircase, after having spent the previous night with Michael. In the aftermath of the tragedy Michael heroically adopts Elizabeth’s two infant daughters, Margaret and Martha. Upon the discovery of this damning information David Rudolph turns to the cameramen and says, “Ok, well you guys have a much better film now.”

To support their claim of murder, the prosecution has the body of Elizabeth Ratliff exhumed two weeks before trial is set to begin, to the chagrin of the defense and mortification of the daughters.

To support their motive hypothesis, prosecution claims Kathleen Petersen would have been upset and embarrassed of Michael Petersen’s bisexuality, had she discovered his illicit correspondence with a male escort, who he planned to meet for anal sex. 

In the series’ last minutes, Michael Petersen is convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to life without parole. My outrage motivated me to write my feelings and open a dialogue so it wasn’t all bad, but c’mon! the prosecutions case became weaker as the trial progressed! The indignant tone of their closing statement focused on Petersen’s bisexuality (not the evidence) and his ostensible incapability of sustaining a happy marriage if he required cock once in a while to maintain his sanity. The defense was calm and measured and only referred to evidence directly involving Kathleen in their three hour closing arguments. Ah well, this was highly enjoyable and I heard a followup doc is in the works. Fun!