(Spoiler alert: Do not read on if you have not watched Netflix’s “The Staircase.”)
Sixteen years after Kathleen Peterson died in her North Carolina home, “The Staircase” filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade still doesn’t know whether Kathleen’s husband, Michael Peterson, is actually guilty of crime he was convicted — and later almost retried — for.
“When I started shooting, I really didn’t know if Michael Peterson was involved and the purpose of the series was not to show if he was innocent, because I don’t know,” de Lestrade told TheWrap. “I didn’t know at the time of the start and I don’t know, 16 years later. I can’t tell you if he’s innocent or not. But when we started to really look at the physical evidence, at every file, what really struck me, if it’s a model, it’s a very unusual model — I’m still trying to understand, how do you kill someone with these kind of injuries? The lacerations and the cuts, no skull fracture — to me, it’s very strange and there is no answer to that question so far. On the other hand, if it was a fall, it’s a very strange fall. To me, the theory presented by the prosecution and the defense were not really satisfying. I felt that the truth was not there and nobody tried to search.”
“The Staircase” follows the trial of Peterson in the case after he reported in December 2001 that his wife had fallen down the stairs and died. However, there was a lot of blood and lacerations to the head that caused investigators to look into a possible homicide.
Peterson was convicted in 2003 of murdering Kathleen Peterson and spent eight years in prison. In 2011, he was granted a new trial, but before it could start, he submitted to an Alford plea to the reduced charge of manslaughter. He was sentenced to time already served and was set free.
But did he, or didn’t he, kill his wife Kathleen? After the trial, a new theory was introduced that an owl had attacked Kathleen Peterson, which de Lestrade says is actually the most plausible theory.
“She may have been attacked by an owl,” said de Lestrade. “The first time I heard about that it was in 2008, I really laughed. I thought, ‘it was not possible!’ But I have to say that since the time I started to study that theory, I met with Larry Pollard many times — Pollard was the first to raise that theory and he was a neighbor of Mike Peterson — and met with many people taking care of that house and who knew the behavior of the house, and I talked to people who have been attacked and injured by owls, and I have to say, in my opinion, it’s the most possible explanation for the very special injuries that Kathleen Peterson had suffered. No one introduced that theory inside a courtroom.”
The theory suggests a Barred Owl could have attacked Kathleen outside her house as she was walking in from the Petersons’ pool. As she fled inside, she could have fallen, hit her head and died. The owl could have gotten tangled in Kathleen’s hair as it attacked her, inflicting serious wounds with its talons. Owls have sharp claws on their feet that they use to attack and kill prey… and they do sometimes go after humans by dive-bombing, with focus on the head. Kathleen was found with pine needles and three small feathers in her hair, and seven long lacerations on her head, giving birth to the owl theory.
The documentary follows Peterson and his family for over a decade, and shows the family in sometimes very intimate settings. De Lestrade, however, said that initally, Peterson didn’t want the filmmakers to film inside the house or film his four children, and that it took three months for him to welcome the filmmakers into his house.
“He was quite difficult when we first started,” he said. “He agreed to the project and at the beginning, when it was a two-hour film, he agreed we would follow the legal process. He didn’t want us to film inside his house with his family, with his children, he didn’t want us to shoot intimate scenes.”
De Lestrade maintains that the documentary series was supposed to be an unbiased representation of the case, not favoring any specific side — but that doesn’t mean Peterson didn’t try to sway it in his favor.
“I had to create a relationship with trust and he didn’t want to expose his life,” added de Lestrade. “He has always been not very comfortable in very private moments, but we were there and we took our chance every time we could to shoot. He’s a very articulate man, very smart with a huge sense of humor, and of course, he tried to manipulate us because he’s a storyteller and it’s fine to seduce your chance in front of the camera. I was aware of that, yes, but I tried to be very fair. At the end, it was more and more difficult to keep the right distance with him because he was the central character of the show, and maybe the only one.”