(Note: This post contains spoilers for the Netflix series “The Staircase.”)
Netflix’s new true crime documentary series “The Staircase” is all about the mystery surrounding the death of Kathleen Peterson, and the possibility that her husband, Michael Peterson, killed her.
The documentary, which was originally released shortly after Michael Peterson was convicted of the crime in 2004, has been updated for its airing on Netflix with more recent information. It covers Peterson’s trial, then goes beyond, following the case through its entire 15-year lifespan.
Throughout that time, Peterson maintained his innocence, and his defense team postulated a theory that Kathleen died from a tumble down on the narrow staircase in the couple’s home.
The jury was unconvinced, partially because of the amount of blood that was found at the scene, and partially because Kathleen had several lacerations on her head. The defense theorized that Kathleen fell and hit her head once, and the blood on the stairs and on her feet caused her to fall again, cutting her head several times but never suffering deeper skull trauma or brain damage.
The prosecution, meanwhile, suggested that Peterson beat Kathleen with an object (possibly a fireplace tool, they said at the time), creating the lacerations on her skull. But in the late 2000s, another theory came to light — one involving another culprit.
Attorney T. Lawrence Pollard suggested in 2009 that an owl could have been responsible for some of Kathleen’s injuries, as WRAL reported. Pollard saw the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation report that listed a feather among the evidence, which led to the theory. The National Audubon Society backed up the theory as being not completely bonkers and, in its article, noted that expert Kate Davis, the director of the Montana-based nonprofit group Raptors of the Rockies, became convinced an owl attacked Kathleen after reviewing the evidence.
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.
Barred Owls are native to the area around Durham, where Kathleen and Michael Peterson lived, and are territorial, especially when mating, which they would have been in December when Kathleen died. The owl theory doesn’t really mean that an owl killed Kathleen — Davis seemed to think that unlikely — but it could have contributed greatly to the situation by cutting and dazing her, leading to the fall.
The owl theory never got tested in court, as it turned out. After serving eight years of his sentence, Michael Peterson was awarded a new trial when Judge Orlando Hudson Jr. ruled that SBI Agent Duane Deavers misrepresented his qualifications in giving blood spatter evidence in the case. Peterson subsequently issued an Alford plea at his new trial, which the court treats as a guilty plea even though it stipulates the defendant doesn’t admit guilt in the case.
He was sentenced to a maximum of 86 months in prison, but wasn’t held thanks to receiving credited for the eight years he had already served.