The Staircase is based on the real-life murder trial of Michael Peterson.
This is one of the shows that best exposes the failure, shortcomings, and corruption of the American criminal justice system. In addition, it is a unique production in terms of showing the violation of many legal rights such as the right to a fair trial and the principle of equality of arms. As a matter of fact, there are countless examples in real life where innocent people are unfairly deprived of their right to life as a result of wrong legal assessments, court decisions and prison sentences. Staircase, with all its transparency, reflects all these unfair trials that are encountered in real life and are known but unfortunately cannot be announced by most people, and the unlawfulness in the American judicial system.
THE STAIRCASE’S 5 MOST IMPORTANT LESSONS
1-Trials can be exceptionally expensive.
In one striking moment, Peterson looks at the camera and says, “Even when you have thousands of dollars and you have a smart lawyer, you have to get very lucky to get out. And it took 15 years.” Money does not always determine the level of representation that you are able to afford, but it does determine the quality of the case that you are able to present- and even that does not guarantee your freedom.
2-The trial/appellate process is often long and tough.
Kathleen Peterson dies on December 9, 2011.
Michael Peterson surrenders to police after a grand jury accusation on January 14, 2002.
Jury selection for Michael Peterson’s trial begins on May 5, 2003
That jury comes back with a guilty verdict on October 10, 2003.
The North Carolina Supreme Court rejects Peterson’s appeal on November 9, 2007.
Duane Deaver is fired from the SBI on January 11, 2011.
Rudolf files for retrial on February 15, 2011 and that motion is granted by Judge Hudson on December 14, 2011.
Peterson enters an Alford plea on February 24, 2017.
Peterson was imprisoned for eight years between the guilty verdict and the judge’s approval for a retrial in 2011. If those eight years were featured in the series, you would see a privileged man forced to face the same consequences as any man or woman convicted of a similar crime. The effects of his period of incarceration are apparent; Peterson looks as if he’s aged several decades during his relatively short stint in prison.
The appeals process is often stressful and drawn out. Successful appeals often end in retrial- meaning that even after a defendant has spent years waiting for the court to hear his or her argument, waiting for the judge to decide on its validity, and finally receiving the order that the court has decided in his or her favour, the defendant is back to the indictment phase of the process. Then, the defendant has to wait years for the case to be resolved again- all for a resolution that is potentially another guilty verdict and another prison sentence.
This is not to say that the appeals process is not worth the struggle. Any violation of an individual’s constitutional rights ought to be addressed and remedied. It is, however, significant to pay attention to that the road to straighten any possible defect of justice may be long and tumultuous.
3-The CSI effect and the presumption of scientific validity are real, impactful phenomena
The CSI effect generally refers to the importance that modern juries place on forensic evidence in order to convict. This theory holds that because of television shows like CSI, juries are far less likely to issue a guilty verdict based only on circumstantial evidence and far more likely to convict when there is some forensic connection linking the defendant to the crime.
In Staircase, injury biomechanics expert Dr. Fanis Bandak explains that a medical examiner is not trained on causation. He goes on to say that a medical examiner can determine the cause of death but cannot determine how those injuries occurred. By establishing causation, the medical examiner overstated her findings and made a connection that was not supported by scientific fact. Because the judge and jurors were not trained scientists, they were forced to find which argument was more compelling- and, often, the more oppressive argument is found to be more persuasive.
Juries have a reasonable expectation that the experts presented by the state begin as impartial investigators. We are conditioned to believe that the men and women employed by entities like the SBI begin their testing without any sort of expectation for the results. In theory, if the forensic scientists are provided with any context, they are meant to disassociate from that information and conduct an unbiased analysis of the evidence recovered.
Forensic scientists are opportune to human error and, in practice, their analysis can be tainted by cognitive bias and expectations. Naturally, individuals in this position may subconsciously or consciously look for evidence that would validate the state’s position while disregarding any contradictory evidence.
4-Secrets will be exposed, and information may be twisted and may misguide the judgment.
The Staircase demonstrates that the varied reactions to Peterson’s public outing- from the complete acceptance by his children, to the blatant homophobia by the prosecution, to the thinly veiled disapproval by Kathleen’s sisters. Alongside Peterson’s mail writings, military career, and personal tragedies, his interactions with other bi or gay men were highly scrutinized over the course of the investigation and subsequent trial.
At the conclusion of the series, Judge Hudson comments on the evidence of Peterson’s sexual correspondence with other men. He says in retrospect, he would not have allowed the evidence to come in as it was “unduly prejudicial to the defense”. The presentation of the emails and other material found at Peterson’s residence was not merely presented as motive, it was used as a weapon.
While the courts can regulate the admissibility of testimony and materials into evidence, there is little that a judge can do about the interpretation of such evidence. Taking into account the political climate in North Carolina in the early 2000’s, one cannot be sure whether or not such ideas would repeated in the privacy of the jury deliberation room if not for Black’s impassioned homophobic remarks. In sum, the interpretation of the evidence is frequently more important than the evidence itself.
5-Miscarriages of justice do not always involve corruption.
The Staircase shows that miscarriages of justice can just as be derived from ignorance with ease. Blood spatters expert exaggerated and mischaracterized his findings. The District Attorney was not trained as a blood spatter expert and was not aware that Deaver was lying about his qualifications and analysis. The defence stipulated to Deaver’s qualifications as an expert witness. The judge allowed for this testimony to be presented under the assumption that Deaver would not make up fake his findings. In the end, it was this testimony that convinced a jury of Peterson’s guilt.
Deaver’s testimony was not the result of a scandal, or a scheme to imprison Michael Peterson for the death of his wife. Deaver’s testimony was the result of an ignorant man in a position that he was not qualified for, making reports that he was unfit to make, and acting in purely his own self-interest. In the majority of cases, this is all it takes to get a wrongful conviction.
There are numerous instances where wrongful conviction is the result of bad faith; while, many defendants are the victims of injustices that arise purely because of ignorance.
You may have spent your day debating with family and friends about Michael Peterson’s innocence or guilt. You may have your own theory about what happened to Kathleen Peterson, or even persuade yourself that the owl theory is valid. . You can come to know a great deal about criminal procedure and the justice system in general from this unique series.
Michael Peterson and his lawyer, David Rudolf. The powerful and unique characters of the breathtaking legal struggle…
I was filled with admiration for this outstanding crime type of tv-series. It let audiences to see the injustice of a system that, too often, keeps its secrets in the shadows.
Scores of people in American society believe USA criminal justice system is the finest available option in the world. While I can agree to a specific degree, the system only works when all parties are guileless and fair. If not, it poses just as much opportunity for evil and error as any other legal system.
In that sense, true-crime series constantly gives the audience a view at true corruption in the judicial system.
Netflix has positioned itself as the true-crime television czar of sorts. . The Staircase has relatively episodic endings leaving the audience anxious to turn the next digital page. It also focuses more on the technical aspects of the criminal justice system, while doing a better job of intertwining the humanity of those involved.
The Staircase succeeds in this “humanity” department to a degree rarely achieved. The Staircase delivers an “inside look” at what is happening in the courtroom, but the series also provides a behind-the-scenes view at the people, and preparation, involved in those proceedings. Consequently, the reality of the American criminal justice system (which often contains more injustice than justice) hits home hard.
MANY CRIMINAL DEFENDANTS CAN’T AFFORD A DEFENSE
The Staircase focuses on the 2001 death of Kathleen Peterson and the accusation, and subsequent criminal jury trial, of her husband Michael Peterson. When Michael Peterson finds Kathleen dead at the bottom of a staircase in their home, he calls law enforcement, ultimately setting into motion a series of events that consume his life over the next 15 years.
(If you haven’t seen the series yet, reader ATTENTION!. Spoiler alert!)
Peterson hires attorney David Rudolf to defend him. The series’ earlier episodes show the economic reality of Peterson’s defence. Consultants, fake juries, experts, and other legal fees soon add up. In one scene, Peterson sits at a table in his home discussing the costs of his criminal representation. The audience learns that the bill is estimated at $750,000.
Peterson questions what “poor people” do when they are caught in the criminal justice system. He brings up a very valid point. Depending on the difficulty of the case, a good defence to murder charges can easily run into the six figures. Plenty of murder cases have been won with much less, but the cost clearly shows that money goes a long way towards justice.
Many people are charged with crimes they cannot afford to defend. Those individuals are left at the mercy of the government. They find themselves caught in the machine. One facet of the government wants to convict them, while the other wants to defend. Sadly, it often seems that the government is much more willing to expend resources on convictions than the decision of acquittal.
QUESTIONABLE CHARACTER EVIDENCE COMES IN TOO OFTEN
As is often the case, surprises are unavoidably discovered during trial preparation. The prosecution intends to offer into evidence portions of Peterson’s life in the hopes of damaging his character. Peterson confesses that he has lived as a bisexual man and that he had sexual relations with other men while still married to the deceased.
How does someone’s sexuality make them more or less likely to have killed their spouse? The prosecution introduces that evidence in the jury trial to show Peterson’s marriage to Kathleen was not as perfect as he would have the jury believe. But is Peterson’s sexuality more justifier to the allegations of murder or more prejudicial in regards to his character?
The prosecution is also allowed to introduce evidence that, while Peterson was living with his first wife in Germany, one of their family friends was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in 1985. Although the defence objects to the admission of the evidence, the prosecution is still allowed to present it in hopes of convincing the jury the event gave Peterson an idea of how to stage Kathleen’s murder as an accident.
There are various provisions that govern when and why evidence of this type should or should not be allowed in trial. Most often the question comes down to: “Is this evidence more probative or prejudicial?” Far too often evidence is admitted because the idea of prejudice in a criminal prosecution is lost on judges.
In my experience, some judges who put faith in the prosecution has a duty to present prejudicial evidence against the defence since USA legal system is an antagonist. This position hang on to the erroneous notion that evidence can only be beneficial or prejudicial. It would follow then that most, if not all, of the evidence the prosecution presents will be biased to a certain extent against the defendant. In the long run, the prosecution is making an effort to convict the defendant, so it’s improbable any of its evidence will be beneficial.
‘EXPERTS’ AREN’T ALWAYS WHAT THEY SEEM
Regardless of the character evidence, the physical evidence seems to be somewhat disadvantageous to Peterson. The crime scene photos are a bloody mess. Even as an experienced defence attorney, I kept asking myself how so much blood could result from a fall like that.
The prosecution appraises this situation, and much of the cases center on the testimony of a medical examiner and a bloodstain-analysis expert. The bloodstain-analysis expert becomes the principal witness against Peterson. He bears testimony to his extensive training and experience. He testifies to his scientific analysis of the blood splatter patterns and his attempts to recreate the same.
The jury ultimately convicts Peterson, and he serves approximately eight years in custody before a new development comes to light. An independent audit of the cases analyzed by the bloodstain analysis expert in Peterson’s trial shows that the “expert” not only lied about his qualifications, but that he had also lied about his experience and credibility.
It’s also discovered the witness’ attempts to re-create the blood splatter had no basis in the relevant scientific community. Additionally, and above all most importantly, it is determined that the witness also withheld exonerator evidence in another trial where he testified as an expert.
Experts have a great deal of convincing authority with juries. Most jurisdictions offer a limiting instruction for the jury to consider when weighing out the testimony of an expert, but sometimes the instruction is not sufficient to overcome the inherent bias. The sad reality is that an expert is still just another person. All people, expert or not, have mistakes, prejudgments, and motives.
IT’S DIFFICULT TO KEEP THE DEFENDANT’S BEST INTERESTS AT HEART
Peterson is granted a new trial as a result of the bloodstain-analysis expert evidence. His previous attorney ultimately gets involved in the case again in the hopes he can get Peterson a plea deal to manslaughter with credit for the time he served as a result of the reversed conviction.
Both Peterson and his attorney know the chances of an acquittal at the new trial are better than they were previously. However, there is no guarantee. The defence attorney argues how it would be in his own best interest to get a win: it’s almost alike to unfinished business or revenge regarding the previous verdict. Regardless, he also knows that even a “win” at trial won’t fully justify the client. The jury returns a verdict of “not guilty” if you are successful. There is no “innocent” verdict.
Simultaneously, Peterson deals with the decision to go to trial by discussing the pros and cons with his family. His daughters want him to fight. One of them goes so far as to tell Peterson, “I don’t want to just lie down and take this.” It’s easy to see they want vindication, but by personalizing the situation, they almost take the decision out of Peterson’s hands.
Family can often be the voice of reason in a criminal case. At the same time, they can become the driving force behind enabling a defendant’s delusions about the “right” or “correct” decision. Just as attorneys can sway a defendant one way or the other, family members can also lead to a case taking an unnecessary or uneducated turn for better or for worse.
PLEA AGREEMENTS AREN’T ALWAYS SATISFACTORY
Peterson eventually realizes that the safe bet is to try and broker a plea agreement. He has already spent eight years of his life in prison. He can’t get that back. The only thing he can hope to accomplish at trial is “winning”—but his son brings his mind that there is no point in winning a game if the game is not fair to begin with.
He admits the plea deal is what he has been wishing for, but he still doesn’t appreciate it. He tells his attorney that the word “guilty” will not come out of his mouth. The family of the deceased wants Peterson to say unequivocally that he is guilty.
Even when the prosecution consent and settle for an Alford plea (hence letting Peterson to enter the plea agreement while still maintaining his innocence), the prospect of entering a plea deal still irritates him. The emotion is understandable to a point. If a defendant is not guilty, then the sole act of entering the akin of a guilty plea, irrespective of the reasons behind it, will be definitely tedious.
Still, from the perspective of an advocate, it is the best possible consequence—it’s a guarantee, and guarantees are tough to come by in the legal arena. Peterson finally has a chance at closure. He finally has a chance to end the case and put everything behind him. He has the ability to forever end the possibility of serving a life sentence in prison.
AN INNOCENT MAN DOES NOT PLEAD GUILTY
Peterson accepts the plea deal, rationalizing that it is in his best interest “because the system is not fair and impartial” During his plea dialogue, Peterson rejects to say anything on his own behalf. Peterson’s attorney clarifies to the judge the reasoning for his client entering into the plea deal with the prosecution: “He does not consent to play again at what he is conscious of being an unfair or crooked table.”
The family of Peterson’s deceased wife is not happy with the outcome. Her sisters appear at the plea to give the victim’s impact statements. One of the sisters laments that “an innocent man does not plead guilty.” Nevertheless, that is far from the truth.
Defendants plead guilty to crimes they did not commit every single day all over the United States. That is a spinoff of a system that bases on bartering and agreements to keep the dockets from becoming too clogged. Guilty pleas are the grease necessary for our current criminal justice system to operate like the well-oiled machine many would have you believe.
The judge closes the documentary. He points out that his rulings would likely have been different if he had the case gone to trial a second time. He would have excluded the evidence of the staircase death from Germany and Peterson’s bisexual lifestyle. His final statement to the documentary team is telling: “I think I could have had a reasonable doubt.”
The Staircase’s fluent and absorbing chapters maintain a limpid clearness that leaves open the possibility of both Michael Peterson’s perfect innocence and total complicity, which puts the viewer in the awful, unguessable gray area of constant reckoning. For its remarkable access and quiet observation of both the justice system and the media climate of the early aughts, the series won a Peabody Award in 2005, and in certain circles, it became a well-regarded true-crime masterpiece.
Photos from Netflix.