Durham novelist Michael Peterson gets a second chance in the court of public opinion next week when the Sundance Channel debuts the update to an award-winning French documentary that chronicled Peterson’s 2003 trial for the murder of his wife, Kathleen.
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the acclaimed director of the eight-part documentary “The Staircase,” has produced a two-hour postscript called “The Staircase: Last Chance.” The first of two one-hour installments will air on Sundance at 10 p.m. Monday. Sundance has been re-airing the earlier installments of the documentary since January.
Peterson’s murder trial – one of the longest in North Carolina’s history – resulted in a guilty verdict and a life sentence. He was granted a new trial by Durham’s Chief Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson in December 2011. Peterson was released from jail on a $300,000 bond. He remains under house arrest while he awaits that new trial.
De Lestrade’s update looks at the lives of Peterson and his children after the trial and chronicles the events that led to his release.
Monday’s episode recaps some events covered in the original documentary, including the 2001 death of Kathleen Peterson and the subsequent trial, interspersed with new footage filmed in 2011 of Peterson, his children and his attorney, David Rudolf, as they prepare for a hearing in which Peterson requests a new trial. That episode also focuses on State Bureau of Investigation lab controversies and the testimony of SBI analyst Duane Deaver.
The episode airing March 11 covers the hearing at which Peterson was granted a new trial, and it looks at his life in the months after his release.
News & Observer investigative reporter Joseph Neff is featured in both updated episodes. Neff is interviewed by de Lestrade about the newspaper’s 2010 investigative series “Agents’ Secrets,” which exposed problems in the SBI labs. That series showed widespread misconduct by Deaver, a key witness for the prosecution in the Peterson trial. Deaver was fired from his job in January 2011.
“The Staircase,” which was produced by Maha Productions, won an International Documentary Association award in 2005 and a Peabody Award in 2006.
The film’s director won an Academy Award in 2001 for his documentary “Murder on a Sunday Morning.” The subject of that film was Brenton Butler, a 15-year-old boy wrongfully accused of a murder in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2000. Butler was acquitted, and the police officers who coerced his confession were investigated but never disciplined.
The North Carolina Attorney General’s Office has appealed Hudson’s 2011 decision to vacate Peterson’s conviction and has asked the Court of Appeals to reinstate it. Jim Cooney, a Charlotte attorney representing Peterson on appeal, is scheduled to submit his response next week. It is not clear whether there will be oral arguments.
Staff writer Anne Blythe contributed to this report.