Weekly Watch: The Staircase(s)

A few weeks ago, in my list of favorite movies, I mentioned that Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Murder On a Sunday Morning, went on to direct The Staircase, an epic (it eventually had 13 episodes) true-crime documentary about the death of Kathleen Peterson and the trial of her husband, Michael. It is basically the urtext of the modern true-crime doc boom. So when I heard that someone had made a non-documentary miniseries not only about the Peterson case but about the documentary itself, I wondered whether this was something the world really needed. Having binged it over a weekend I’m still not sure it was necessary, but it certainly was interesting.

The base facts of the case are fairly simple – in December 2001, Peterson found his wife dead at the bottom of a set of stairs in their home. The scene of her death was seriously bloody, evidence of a violent and tormented death. Everything else is supremely complicated. Peterson was charged with murdering his wife and eventually convicted, but his trial was rife with prosecutorial misconduct and expert witness fraud, leading to the conviction being overturned. Rather than go through with a second trial and risk going back to prison, Peterson eventually entered what’s called an Alford plea to manslaughter, in which he did not admit responsibility for his wife’s death (the point of an Alford plea is to allow a defendant to get the benefit of pleading guilty while maintaining their innocence – admittedly, it’s counterintuitive).

Part of what made the documentary series so riveting is that Lestrade and his team basically embedded with Peterson, his defense team, and his family, providing the kind of in-the-moment access that most true-crime docs can only dream of. The crew initially had similar access to the prosecution team, but that waned as the case went on.

Given that the documentary was such an interior view of proceedings, what does the miniseries bring to the table that it couldn’t?

Primarily, it brings life to Kathleen Peterson, whose death hovers over the documentary but who isn’t given any chance to be developed as a person. The miniseries splits its timeline three ways, with one being events leading up to Kathleen’s death. It does a good job of bringing to life someone who tends to get overlooked in the whole true crime genre and Toni Collette does a great job with the part.

Another thing the miniseries gives us is a more in depth look at the Peterson family and how the trial impacted them. The way that family was put together would strain fiction – two sons from Peterson’s prior marriage, a daughter from Kathleen’s prior marriage, and two adopted daughters whose mother had died in Germany (at the bottom of a set of stairs, no less!). They pull apart in different ways as the miniseries goes on and lends a real sense of how a case like this grinds up everyone who is caught up in it.

Finally, the meta touch of the miniseries is that it includes the makers of the documentary in it as characters. With one notable exception this really isn’t commented upon that much, as in large part their presence is simply noted in the background as filming takes place. The exception – and it is a doozy – is that the editor of the documentary wound up in a multi-year romantic relationship with Peterson while he was in prison, casting her objectivity into doubt (she has issues with some of the facts portrayed in the series – and isn’t the only one – but doesn’t deny the relationship). I mean, it’s an “ooh, I didn’t know that” moment, but unless you think documentaries are rigorous exercises in balance the idea that the documentary had a POV (and it was that Peterson was innocent) doesn’t come as a shock.

But is he innocent? It’s here that I find the differences between the documentary and the miniseries have the most interesting effect.

As I said, the doc is largely framed through the trial itself and the ways the state’s case is shaky (and the doc doesn’t even include an entire state’s expert witness whose testimony was struck for perjury!). That plays into, at least in my criminal defense lawyer brain, the presumption of innocence. If it can’t be proven, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he did it then he didn’t right? The Alford plea at the end of things is meaningless in this regard as the entire point is that it allows a defendant to take a deal while maintaining innocence. There’s a burden and the state didn’t meet it. Simple as that.

But the miniseries, perhaps because of its broader scope, leaves me less certain. I think it’s that in paring away a lot of the legal wrangling you’re left with there being, basically, two stories of what happened – one in which Peterson killed Kathleen for not particularly well explained reasons and one in which it was simply a horrible accident. Neither story accounts for all the physical evidence and the only person who knows the truth, Peterson, has issues with honesty. I still think, if I was on a civil jury, I’d find that he didn’t do it, but it would be a much closer question.

So back to the original question – did we need a fictional take on The Staircase (aside from the incredibly funny Trial and Error)? Probably not. In truth, the miniseries doesn’t shed any more light on the case or the people involved. It does allow for some dramatic speculation, however, about areas that were beyond the scope of the documentary. So necessary? No. Worth a watch? Absolutely.

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