On December 9th, 2001, Michael Peterson called 911 to report that his wife Kathleen had fallen down the staircase in their elegant home in Durham, North Carolina. The Petersons seemed to be a true power couple. He was a successful novelist; she was an executive at a multinational telecommunications company.
Michael said he had been outside by the pool. Kathleen was in the house. When he came inside around 2:30 am, he found his wife in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs, still breathing, but barely. She died in his arms as he was on the phone with the 911 operator. According to Peterson, his wife had mixed alcohol and Valium and must have lost her footing.
But when police arrived they thought it looked more like the scene of a murder than an accident. There was too much blood. It had soaked through Kathleen’s clothes and Michael’s. A coroner ruled Kathleen had taken 90 minutes to two hours to die, and that her injuries were consistent with blows from a blunt object.
Kathleen and Michael were the only people in the house. He was the obvious suspect.
The viewer and the filmmakers follow in real time as the case against Michael Peterson is built. We get a tour of the house. We meet Michael’s four children from his first marriage, who all say he was devoted to their stepmother. We meet the prosecution team and see the gruesome footage taken the night Kathleen died. The blood-spattered staircase is untouched throughout the trial preparations, serving as a constant reminder of Kathleen’s death.
We're there as the first wrench is thrown into the defense case when Michael’s attorneys learn he is bisexual. He claims Kathleen knew about his sexuality and had agreed to an open marriage. But prosecutors argue her discovery of his “secret life” was the motive for her murder.
This discovery caused a rift in the family. Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin initially supported Michael, but reconsidered after she was told he had multiple affairs while married to her mother. She distanced herself from the family and became estranged from her stepfather and step siblings.
In one of the most dramatic twists, it turns out Michael is connected to the death of another woman who was also discovered at the bottom of a staircase: the birth mother of his two adoptive daughters, Martha and Margaret. Michael had been the last person to see her alive, too.
We are then whisked to Germany as the filmmakers follow Michael’s lawyers, who are investigating the circumstances of this woman’s death. The official story is that one night in 1985, Michael and his first wife dined with their friend Elizabeth Ratliff at her house. Michael stayed behind to help the widowed Elizabeth put her two young daughters to bed, and then went home. The next morning, the nanny discovered Elizabeth’s lifeless body at the bottom of the staircase.
An autopsy was performed and officials at the time determined Elizabeth’s death arose from natural causes: after weeks of suffering from severe headaches, she had a cerebral hemorrhage that killed her and caused her to topple down the stairs. Michael and his wife adopted Elizabeth’s orphaned daughters and when the couple divorced, the girls stayed with Michael.
The case had been closed for years. However, the similar circumstances to the murder charge Michael was facing cast new suspicion over Elizabeth’s death.
Elizabeth’s daughters, who continued to support the man they had always regarded as their father, gave permission for their mother’s body to be exhumed for further investigation. They hoped the result would clear Michael’s name.
After one of the longest trials in North Carolina’s history, a jury found Michael guilty of murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Once in prison, Michael exhausted the appeals process. One might think the story would have ended there. Not quite. The documentary picks back up again, eight years after the guilty verdict was reached. A crucial fact has come to light: one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, Duane Deaver, committed perjury during the trial. An independent investigation found that Deaver, an analyst for the State Bureau of Investigation, had given deliberately false testimony exaggerating his training of bloodstain analysis.
A retrial for Michael was scheduled. However, Michael and his lawyers were wary of going through the whole process again. They entered an Alford plea, in which Michael pled guilty but admitted no wrongdoing. With credit for time already served, Michael was a free man.
The saga leaves the viewer with disturbing questions. Was Michael Peterson an innocent man who had been brutally failed by the justice system? Or was he a cold, calculating killer who was set free after just 8 years in prison?
One possibility that the documentary doesn’t explore is the so-called Owl Theory. It originated with one of the Peterson’s neighbors, an attorney named T. Lawrence Pollard, who suggested that Kathleen’s real killer was ... an owl. The theory suggests that Kathleen was attacked by an owl outside and managed to dislodge it and run inside, only to slip in her own blood and fatally hit her head.
The supporting evidence: Kathleen was found with strands of her own hair and tiny owl feathers clenched in her hand. Michael’s lawyer also filed from experts testifying that the lacerations on Kathleen’s scalp were consistent with the talons of a large bird of prey, and that owls in that region have been known to attack people. While the Owl Theory has some merit, no one has tried to pursue the theory in court.
Today, Michael is living a quiet life in Durham, North Carolina. He now occupies a 1,200 square foot condo, a far cry from the mansion he once shared with Kathleen. The move makes sense given his financial situation: in 2006, Michael filed for bankruptcy, and he faces a $25 million wrongful death suit filed by Kathleen’s daughter.
Despite the lawsuit and the fact that Michael will permanently be known as a convicted felon, he’s trying to put the past behind him as best as he can. Michael’s future plans include writing another book and spending time with his family, including grandchildren that were born while he was behind bars.
All photos via Sundance Channel