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The Staircase: A True Crime Documentary That Surprises Even After It Ends

Was it murder or an accident?

You’ve binged all episodes of The Jinx and Making a Murderer, and yet your true-crime addiction is still unsatisfied? We have your next fix: The Staircase. The filmmakers were able to receive extraordinary access to the locations and players in this real-life drama. They started shooting shortly after the murder at the center of this series, so you’re there from the very beginning right to the verdict. But it turns out, even that is not the end. The story always has one more big surprise up its sleeve.

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. 

Related: 9 True Crime Documentaries That Will Blow Your Mind 

Michael said he had been outside by the pool. Kathleen was in the house. When he came inside around 2:30 am he said he found his wife in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs, still breathing, but barely. She died in his arms, he said, as he was on the phone with the 911 operator. She had mixed alcohol and Valium, he said, and must have lost her footing.

the staircase documentary
  • Kathleen and Michael Peterson

  • Photo Credit: Sundance Channel

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 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. 

Related: 10 Books for Fans of True Crime Documentaries That Crack the Case Wide Open 

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.

the staircase documentary
  • Photo Credit: Sundance Channel

In one of the most dramatic twists, it turns out Peterson is connected to the death of another woman who was also discovered at the bottom of a staircase. Michael had been the last to see her alive too.

The verdict comes in Episode 8. (We won’t give it away here.) That was originally the end of the series, but the story had still more twists to unfold. So the filmmakers return to the case again after several years, and The Staircase is now a 10-part series that will likely keep you glued to your seat to the very end, and even beyond.

All photos via Sundance Channel


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