…Or were they pushed? It’s a classic question and one that’s central to Netflix’s new blockbuster docuseries, The Staircase.
This show is coming with plenty of hype, including the claim that it’s ‘the Citizen Kane of true crime shows’.
If you want to know what all the fuss is about, we’ve got the answers to almost all of your questions – but be warned, some of these details could be considered spoilers!
What’s it all about?
The series follows the real-life trial of author Michael Peterson, who claims he found his wife Kathleen lying in a huge pool of blood at the bottom of the staircase, her head heavily lacerated after an apparently horrific collision with the wall following a tumble down the stairs. But plenty of evidence seems to suggest it might have been foul play, that Michael had been caught out in an act of betrayal, and that he had apparently attacked his wife with a then-missing fire poker.
However, it’s far from an open and shut case – did prejudice and disgust at Michael’s prior behaviour play a part in the intense suspicion that surrounded him? Had he done this before? And, shockingly, was an animal involved in Kathleen’s terrifyingly brutal death?
Did he have a secret he felt was worth killing for?
It soon emerged that family man Michael had been having illicit sexual affairs with men. A wealth of digital evidence from his home computer proved beyond doubt that the author was living a double life; one that would deeply shock the conservative community of Durham, North Carolina.
When confronted by investigators, he claimed Kathleen knew about his bisexual liaisons and was fine with what he was doing. That came as a huge shock to the couple’s children, all of whom had unquestioningly supported Michael until then. Some then broke ranks.
The revelation sparked theories that Kathleen had found out about his lies and cheating, and he’d beaten her around the head following a fierce confrontation on the stairs.
Was he treated unfairly?
Filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade says that despite the compelling possible motive for murder, the system was set against the accused.
‘I met the District Attorney and he said: “Michael Peterson is evil”. He said that exact word – and I knew that they were not prosecuting him because they had physical evidence that he did it, but because of the way he was living his life.
‘The physical evidence doesn’t show any [skull] fractures or evidence of blows to the head. The police thought he was evil because he slept with men – and I realised this was a story I just had to follow.’
What’s this about an owl?
In a truly bizarre twist, one of the couple’s neighbours came up with an alternative theory as to what happened to Kathleen, and it seems disturbingly plausible: she’d been attacked by a large owl. Sure enough, evidence consistent with the idea was found at the crime scene.
A confirmed owl feather and a sliver of wood from a tree were found in a clump of Kathleen’s hair, which had been pulled out by the roots and was found clutched in her dead hand. A re-examination of the collected evidence found two more tiny owl feathers.
A bird expert concluded her injuries were consistent with such an attack, and there had even been other reported owl attacks in the area.
Had he done this before?
Years before, Michael and his first wife, Patty, had become close friends with school teacher Elizabeth Ratliff and her husband George. After George died, the three became closer, with Patty saying her then-husband and Elizabeth ‘had a loving, almost familial relationship’.
But tragedy struck, with Elizabeth found dead at the bottom of her staircase, in what was then believed to be a tragic accident. Michael was apparently the last person to ever see her alive. Her death was ascribed to cerebral hemorrhage.
Following Kathleen’s death, Michael is shown in the documentary to be horrified at the news Elizabeth’s body was to be exhumed and reexamined. "What's the f***ing grounds?" he rages. "Can people just go dig up graves?"
The results of testing became highly controversial and a source of much drama.
Did he kill Kathleen?
That’s the question that’s going to be on everyone’s lips once The Staircase begins on Netflix on June 8. The answer is for you to decide.