‘The Staircase’: Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade on Michael Peterson, Owls, and More
The story of novelist Michael Peterson, convicted of murdering his wife Kathleen in 2001, takes yet another strange turn as he gets his shot at an appeal and a possible overturn of his guilty verdict, captured in the two-part sequel to the riveting documentary ‘The Staircase.’ Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade offers his take on Peterson’s story and the possibility of justice finally being served.
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade is an Academy Award–winning documentary filmmaker and the director of the riveting 2004 documentary The Staircase (a.k.a. Soupçons), currently airing on Sundance Channel. The eight-hour cinema verité series recounts the serpentine trial of crime novelist Michael Peterson, accused of murdering his wife Kathleen, whose body was discovered at the bottom of a narrow staircase in their Durham, North Carolina, home in 2001. The Staircase returns with two new episodes, entitled “The Staircase: Last Chance,” beginning March 4 on Sundance Channel, and follows Peterson’s latest appeal attempt. What follows is a first-person piece written by de Lestrade for The Daily Beast.
When I finally completed The Staircase in September 2004, I felt as emotionally drained as David Rudolf did at the end of the film. I told myself that I would stop making documentary films—just as David had vowed that the Peterson trial would be his last criminal-defense case. It was wrenching to watch as Michael Peterson, bound at the wrists, was swept into the car that would take him to prison for the rest of his life. I couldn’t bear Martha and Margaret’s endless tears. It was harrowing to try to comfort a family shattered by a tragedy that seemed so senseless.
Since 2004 I have directed three fictional films, each as thematically and formally distinct as the next. Regardless, I never forgot the characters from The Staircase. The sheer force of their reality kept that family's memory at the fore of my mind. I visited Michael Peterson four times in prison, and the mystery of Kathleen Peterson's death haunts me to this day.
I knew that this was the only story that could lure me back into documentary filmmaking. It had to wait eight years. Eight years Michael Peterson spent in a cell that he shared with 27 other prisoners. Eight years of rejected appeals and crushed hopes. Eight years I waited for fate to bring a new twist to this extraordinary saga.
Maybe this most recent turn of events will give the story an epilogue—and me some peace of mind.
It has been immensely frustrating that the truth of this story has remained so obscure for so long. I never believed the prosecution’s murder theory. The evidence contradicted it. It’s impossible to kill someone by hitting them over the head without inflicting either skull fractures or cerebral contusions. On the other hand, the fall scenario put forth by the defense didn’t entirely satisfy me either. The lacerations on Kathleen's scalp are difficult to reconcile with an accidental fall down the stairs.
As such, I began to focus on a different theory—one about an owl attack outside the Petersons' house. At face value, this theory seemed absurd, so I treated it with a great deal of caution. Yet, today, I have to admit that numerous facts favor this owl theory.
Two years ago, I met with a well-known neurological surgeon. After a careful look—over several days—at Kathleen’s injuries, he told me, “These injuries are not consistent with any form of blunt instrument used as a weapon. These injuries could not be produced with a pipe, hammer, knife, tire iron, or even a hand claw such as would be used in the garden. These wounds, however, are most consistent with lacerations caused by a large raptor or bird of prey. Four punctures wounds converging to a point via jagged lacerations, without associated scalp contusions, must be considered to have been inflicted by a raptor talon until proven otherwise. Furthermore, these specific lacerations are of the dimensions of a barred owl’s talons.”
“The attack—outside the house—could be followed by fainting, most likely on the staircase, leading to a fall either down the stairs or at the foot of the stairs, suffering a fractured thyroid cartilage as she fell. This is followed by a period of unconsciousness, during which she either hemorrhages to death or asphyxiates to death.”
Nonetheless, I am still unsure about exactly what happened the night of December 9. I do not know how Kathleen Peterson died. I cannot assert with absolute certainty that Michael Peterson did not kill his wife. No one can. I am convinced, however, that Michael did not receive a fair trial in 2003. The prosecutors pulled out all the stops in order to procure a guilty verdict. They disinterred a body 17 years after burial. The case exposed Michael’s sexual life to undue public scrutiny—without a shred of evidence that this had contributed to a possible motive. Worse still, they called on an expert witness—an imposter—who made a mockery of scientific procedure.
It's for this reason that I am delighted to find Michael Peterson released from prison today.
Michael’s eight years in prison have profoundly changed him. The ordeal is carved into his face and body. I am deeply moved by the loyalty of his children. They supported him throughout all these years. He wouldn't have gotten through it without their love. This dimension of the story makes my film a kind of family tragedy as well.
When Duane Deaver took the witness stand in 2003, I was struck by his arrogance. Over the course of his testimony, I came to believe that his experiments had absolutely no scientific value and that they were conceived with only one goal in mind: convicting Michael Peterson. It was obvious. I am relieved that at least this part of the truth has come out today.
“The Staircase: Last Chance” airs Monday, March 4, and Monday, March 11, on Sundance Channel.