'The Staircase': Money, Sex and Secrets

The final chapter in the long saga of novelist and convicted "staircase" murderer Michael Peterson could be written any day now.

In a story with more bizarre twists and turns than any thriller he could have written, Peterson is waiting to hear if the North Carolina Court of Appeals will overturn his conviction for murdering his wife, Kathleen, in October 2003.

Peterson, a former newspaper columnist, and his wife, Kathleen, a Nortel Networks executive, lived in a sprawling white house in Durham, N.C. By most accounts, it was a storybook second marriage for both.

Michael had four children (two sons and two adopted daughters) from his first marriage; Kathleen had one daughter, Caitlin. According to Peterson, it was one big happy family: "We lived together for 14 years, and we were happy every one of those years."

However, that happy existence was shattered in the morning of Dec. 9, 2001, when a frantic Michael Peterson made a 911 call, claiming to have discovered his wife alive but unconscious at the bottom of a staircase. "My wife had an accident. She's still breathing," Peterson cried.

When authorities arrived on the scene, Peterson said that he and his wife had watched a movie that night, "America's Sweethearts," and then, after having some wine, the couple walked outside to sit by the pool. According to Peterson, Kathleen went inside to go to bed while he remained outside, smoking his pipe.

Sometime later, he said he found his wife, crumpled and bloody and barely breathing at the bottom of the stairs. She died later that morning.

From the beginning Peterson maintained that Kathleen had simply slipped on the stairs in a tragic accident after drinking wine and taking valium. However, according to police who arrived on the scene, the amount of blood spilled across the stairs and on Kathleen immediately raised suspicions of foul play.

"When I first entered the house, I noticed an abundant amount of blood on her, on the floor, on the walls, that just was not consistent with somebody falling down the steps," said Art Holland, lead detective on the case.

An autopsy report showed that Kathleen Peterson had multiple lacerations to her skull. According to Jim Hardin, who was district attorney at the time, "It's impossible for me to believe ... that could be caused from a series of missteps or a fall down 15 different stairs. I just can't see that happening. This had to occur from multiple inflictions of blunt force trauma."

Peterson was arrested and charged with murder.

Documenting the Defense

Shortly after Peterson's arrest, a team of Academy Award-winning documentary filmmakers from Paris arrived in Durham. In a collaboration with ABC News, the two French filmmakers, Denis Poncet and Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, began shooting behind the scenes, documenting not only the defense strategy meetings where everything was laid on the table, but also the most intimate moments at home for the Peterson family.

Over the next two years, the filmmakers would shoot 650 hours of footage, ultimately winning a prestigious DuPont and Peabody Award for their coverage of the case. Excerpts from that extraordinary footage will air in tonight's program on ABC.

Page
  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
Join the Discussion
You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
You Might Also Like...