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'The Staircase' left out one very important plot twist: 'The Owl Theory'

Larry Pollard at a press conference in front of the Durham County Courthouse in 2008. Pollard, a former neighbor of convicted murderer Michael Peterson, was attempting to bolster his hypothesis that an owl killed Peterson’s wife, Kathleen, instead of Peterson.
Larry Pollard at a press conference in front of the Durham County Courthouse in 2008. Pollard, a former neighbor of convicted murderer Michael Peterson, was attempting to bolster his hypothesis that an owl killed Peterson’s wife, Kathleen, instead of Peterson. News & Observer file

You've been hearing about the Michael Peterson murder trial depicted in the Netflix documentary series "The Staircase" for ages, and people are always talking about "the owl."

"The owl did it!" they yell. You're intrigued.

You settle down to watch the series — all 13 episodes — and ... no owl! (Attorney David Rudolf said the word "raptor" one time in passing in the final episode.)

So what's the deal with "The Owl Theory" and why wasn't it in "The Staircase"?

We explain.

'The Owl Theory'

Peterson's neighbor, attorney Larry Pollard, is the chief engineer of "The Owl Theory."

After seeing autopsy photos showing talon-shaped wounds on the back of the head of Peterson's wife, Kathleen — along with one line of an SBI report noting the presence of a "microscopic feather" in her hand — Pollard began investigating owl attacks. He spent years gathering information about owls.

Here's his theory: Pollard contends that an owl swooped down on Kathleen Peterson outside her home on Cedar Street in Durham and sunk its sharp, bony talons covered with microscopic feathers into the back of her head. The attack knocked her down, he said, and then sent her running for cover inside. He speculates that Kathleen Peterson, in a drunken and injured state, eventually passed out inside, got up once, maybe twice, splattering blood on the walls and staircase, and then bled to death.

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There is an excellent interview with Pollard in BBC's "Beyond Reasonable Doubt?" podcast (the whole podcast is pretty excellent, to be honest) and you should listen to it. He's passionate.

Why wasn't the owl evidence used?

Good question. A quick YouTube search of "owl attacks man" yields enough proof that the birds are dangerous (but raptor experts across the country have said they know of no fatal owl attacks).

Pollard handed over evidence to Michael Peterson's defense team before the 14-week trial in 2003, but the defense team did not use it. A jury found Peterson guilty of first-degree murder.

And the camera crew for "The Staircase" filmed Pollard's 2008 news conference at which he pushed his evidence of an owl attack, but they did not use the footage in the series.

"The Staircase" director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade told Vulture: "The purpose of the film was to follow the legal process. If there would have been another trial, I’m sure that the owl theory would have been examined inside the courtroom. But because it was never introduced inside the courtroom, I decided not to talk about that theory."

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It could happen?

The 2017 NBC sitcom "Trial and Error," which was inspired by "The Staircase" documentary, incorporated lots of owls into the spoofy take on the true-crime documentary genre.

-- Spoilers ahead! --

In the final episode of "Trial and Error" last season, after the husband on trial for his wife's murder had been found guilty and sent to prison, cellphone footage was discovered of the wife being attacked by an owl. The attack drove her through a large plate glass window and she died of her injuries ... at the bottom of a staircase. ("Trial and Error" returns in July with a new season and new case.)

"The Staircase," a documentary film series covering one of the most notorious trials in Durham history, has gone global on Netflix. The Michael Peterson saga took sixteen years to come to completion.

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