HBO’s true-crime drama, The Staircase, tells the story of Michael Peterson, the American novelist who was convicted of killing his wife Kathleen, despite maintaining she had died after falling down the stairs.
The series – starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette – is a follow-up to the acclaimed documentary of the same name, which saw French documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade covering the case and filming inside Michael’s home. The first documentary was released in 2004, with new episodes being added to cover more recent developments in 2013 and 2018.
Both projects tell the story of how, in 2003, Michael was convicted for murdering Kathleen in 2001 and sentenced to life in prison.
Some 14 years later, in 2017, Michael was released after his charge was reduced to manslaughter and he was sentenced to time already served. The charge was reduced after it emerged that Duane Deaver, a State Bureau of Investigation analyst, had misled jurors about the strength of bloodstain evidence in the original 2003 trial.
According to a 2018 report by Associated Press, Michael moved into a 1,200-square-foot, two-bedroom condo in the same town where he lived with his wife: Durham in North Carolina.
Defence attorney David Rudolf previously told press: “He is living in Durham – I’m not sure why he’s living in Durham, but he is. He’s in a ground floor apartment with no stairs – that was really important accommodation.”
Since his release from prison, Michael, now 78, has written two books about the trial, his experiences behind bars and his life as a free man. The proceeds from his 2019 memoirs Behind the Staircase and Beyond the Staircase have been donated to charity.
The case divided Michael’s family. His late wife’s sisters and her daughter from a previous relationship, Caitlin Atwater, believe he killed Kathleen, while his own children – Todd and Clayton Peterson and his adopted daughters Martha and Margaret Ratliff – have supported him and argued that he is innocent.
In 2008, Michael’s stepdaughter Atwater obtained a $25m settlement after she filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the writer. It is thought that Michael was unable to afford to pay this, however, and that the reason behind Atwater’s lawsuit was not to make any money but to disincentivise any efforts Michael might make to profit off the case – for example, from a book – as he would be obliged to give the profits to Atwater.
In a 2017 interview with IndyWeek, Atwater – who now uses her husband Christopher’s surname, Clark – revealed how she tries to keep her mother’s spirit alive. She said that she has recreated, from memory, a pasta salad recipe that Kathleen made.
She said she makes her children’s Halloween costumes herself, too. “When I do these things, it’s like I’m channeling her,” she said. “It keeps her close.”
Todd and Clayton are both thought to have good relationships with their father. The Ratliff sisters have stayed out of the spotlight, but in one of the episodes of the documentary, Martha revealed that she has suffered with anxiety.
“I used to suffer a lot from really bad nightmares; I used to have really bad panic attacks in public spaces because of being in the trial," she said.
“My body and my whole nervous system will think that something like the trial is happening. For me it’s like my heart beats faster, I can’t breathe and I worry that I’m going to pass out.”
The Staircase is out on HBO Max and Sky Atlantic on Thursday 5 May.