As Peterson documentary debuts on Netflix, Durham braces for new attention -- and scrutiny

The award-winning 2005 French documentary series “The Staircase,” which lands on Netflix on Friday with three new episodes, has been in circulation for years — first released in England on BBC and then on Sundance TV in the U.S.

But with the massive streaming giant behind it for the first time, there has never been so much potential for introducing millions of brand new true-crime-hungry viewers to Durham’s most infamous crime story.

“The Staircase” follows the story of Michael Peterson’s trial for the murder of his wife, Kathleen, who he says he found on the night of Dec. 9, 2001, in a pool of blood at the bottom of a back staircase in their Durham home. He was indicted on a first-degree murder charge 10 days later and went on trial in May 2003. It became one of the longest murder trials in North Carolina history — and one of the most unbelievable.

(Note: Many of our local readers likely know all of the twists and surprises in the case and how it all turned out, but newcomers may not, so we’ll try not to spoil every aspect of the case for those wanting to binge the series on Netflix. If you want to be spoiled, there are links here and here and scattered through this story.)

The Jean-Xavier de Lestrade-directed series will inevitably be compared to the monster in the true-crime documentary genre: “Making a Murderer,” a 10-part Netflix exclusive that debuted on Dec. 18, 2015, and was viewed by 19.5 million viewers in the first 35 days alone.

For months, the story of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey, on trial for the murder of Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc, Wis., was all anyone seemed to talk about. At water coolers both real and virtual, the players were analyzed (and sometimes vilified), the town was scrutinized, and theories were discussed. Protesters picketed the Manitowoc County Courthouse. A White House petition asking for the pardon of Avery exceeded 100,000 signatures.

Making a Murderer
The Netflix series "Making a Murderer" tells the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man wrongly convicted of sexual assault only to be accused, along with his nephew, of killing a photographer two years after being released. Morry Gash AP

It was an obsession.

It brought attention — some welcome and some very much unwanted — to any person or place associated with the crime or trial.

Could Durham be in for the same sort of attention?

A ‘massive’ response

One of the most recognizable players in the “Making a Murderer” drama was defense attorney Jerry Buting.

He describes the attention from the series as “insane,” but for him, it was a good kind of insane.

“The impact was massive and totally unexpected,” Buting said in a phone interview last week from Wisconsin. “Nobody expected it to be as big of a hit globally as it was. Overnight my email box was just exploding. My Twitter account that started with eight people was going up a thousand a day. It was just insane. Within the first day or two, I had heard from people in Australia, South Africa, Israel, Canada — a lot of people saying, ‘How could this happen in America? We thought America was better than this.’

“So it was a very massive response to ‘Making a Murderer.’ I don’t know what the response will be (for ‘The Staircase’).”

It could simply be a numbers game. The previous platform for “The Staircase” was Sundance TV, which is available on approximately half of the cable and satellite services in the U.S. But even so, the documentary wasn’t available for constant “on demand” viewing. Over the years, Sundance would air occasional marathons, and the series was available on DVD and for purchase on iTunes and Amazon.

Netflix, which has 125 million subscribers in more than 190 countries, now has exclusive global rights (except in France). The three new episodes, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, were produced by What’s Up Films, directed by de Lestrade, and produced by Matthieu Belghiti and Allyson Luchak.

Because of series like “Making a Murderer,” Netflix has become a top destination for true-crime fans at a time when the genre is at its peak.

A town feels the fury

Buting and Dean Strang, the other attorney on Avery’s case, were considered by viewers across the world to be heroes of the documentary, the white knights trying to save Avery and Dassey from corrupt local officials and a flawed justice system.

But Buting says that was “180 degrees difference” from the experience during the trial. To the people of Manitowoc and Wisconsin, he and Strang were the villains, in large part because of the pre-trial coverage in the media.

“The attitude was, ‘How can you defend a monster like that?’” he said. “So we were very much the bad guys for defending somebody like Steven Avery while the case was going on. Then when the documentary came out, people got to see the other side of it and really got to hear and see witness testimony. ... Once people saw that side of it, we became almost like heroes.”

Buting has since written a book about the “Making a Murderer” experience that is part memoir and includes sections on his time in law school at UNC (coincidentally, Peterson attorney David Rudolf was his clinical law professor there). “Illusion of Justice: Inside Making a Murderer and America’s Broken System’” was published last year.

Contrary to the experiences of Buting and Strang post-documentary, the town and county of Manitowoc were inundated with negative attention.

A January 2016 article in The New York Times described how the documentary had “upended this county of about 80,000 along Lake Michigan.”

Reporter Monica Davey wrote: “Fury — by telephone, email and on social media — has also flooded the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, the Manitowoc City Police Department, Manitowoc City Hall and pretty much anywhere else with the name Manitowoc attached to it.”

‘People won’t be pleased about that’

Much like “Making a Murderer,” “The Staircase” presents a very pro-defendant narrative, one that could inspire viewers sympathetic to Peterson’s plight to unleash some anger on Durham and its agencies.

“I imagine there will be some of that for Durham and particularly the prosecutor’s office,” said Buting.

Michael Peterson in Episode 12 of "The Staircase" on Netflix. Netflix will have all 13 episodes of the documentary series (which includes three new episodes) for the first time starting June 8. NETFLIX

“I don’t want to spoil the viewers from the results of the end of “Staircase,’ but ... it’s yet another example of the prosecution of an innocent — at least, apparently innocent man — certainly using underhanded tactics and experts to get a conviction. So people won’t be pleased about that, I’m sure. And the end result that has occurred, I don’t think people are going to be that pleased about that either.”

Duke University law professor Thomas B. Metzloff, who was a Durham neighbor of Mike and Kathleen’s at the time of her death, has taught “The Staircase” documentary to his students. Metzloff praises the documentary for showing so much of how criminal defense cases unfold, but he disagrees with one narrative of the documentary — that Peterson didn’t get a fair trial.

Metzloff, like many people living in the Triangle during the trial, watched the replays of it that aired on local TV stations each night. He also attended some of the trial in person.

“I don’t think the average person who followed the trial closely in real time comes away with a reaction of ‘Oh, my gosh, here’s an innocent man who is being victimized.’ Having been to the trial, it was a fair trial. It was a good jury. The evidence was presented and David Rudolf was able to point out the weaknesses. For example, his cross-examination of (SBI blood expert) Duane Deaver, which I attended, was very powerful. So there was evidence to support the verdict. Whether there should have been reasonable doubt is for people to judge based on the evidence.”

(From left): Butch Williams, Michael Peterson, David Rudolf in Episode 13 of "The Staircase" on Netflix. Netflix will have all 13 episodes of the documentary series (which includes three new episodes) for the first time starting June 8. NETFLIX

A ‘Bible-thumping Southern jury’?

Metzloff also challenges the notion put forth by Peterson’s defense and repeated in “The Staircase” that Peterson was a victim of what Metzloff characterizes as a “Bible-thumping Southern jury.”

That’s simply not consistent with Durham’s demographics, he said.

“That’s an absurd narrative, because if David Rudolf had wanted to try to change the venue of this case, he could have because of the publicity,” Metzloff said. “But where in the world would you want to be trying a case involving these elements (spoiler: There is a subplot involving a thwarted homosexual affair) but in Durham, North Carolina, the most liberal county in all of North Carolina? And there’s no evidence that the jury had anything like that in terms of a reaction.

“This was a good jury that looked at this case, and there was no strong evidence that I saw or anybody else saw that this jury was out to get him for some personal reason,” Metzloff said. “They looked at the evidence. They weighed it differently than some other people might have.”

(From left): Margaret Ratliff Blakemore, Martha Ratliff and Michael Peterson in Episode 12 of "The Staircase" on Netflix. Netflix will have all 13 episodes of the documentary series (which includes three new episodes) for the first time starting June 8. NETFLIX

An interesting sidebar for viewers wondering about the pro-defendant slant of the documentary is the off-camera love story it spawned. Director de Lestrade recently confirmed that the film’s editor, Sophie Brunet, fell in love with Peterson while working on the documentary. He told L’Express, a French news weekly, when asked about the affair: “This is one of the incredible things that happened during those 15 years. Life is really full of surprises. They had a real story, which lasted until May 2017. But she never let her own feelings affect the course of editing.”

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Nothing to see here

After “Making a Murderer,” true-crime junkies flocked to Manitowoc to see the places depicted in the documentary in person.

Metzloff, who still lives in Peterson’s old Forest Hills neighborhood, doesn’t think there’s much for true-crime lookie-loos to see in Durham.

The front of the house at 1810 Cedar St., now on its second post-Peterson owner, is visible from the street, but the entire 3.4-acre property is gated. It still has the swimming pool where Michael Peterson said he was sitting alone the night Kathleen died. The owners right after Peterson put barbed wire on top of the back gate, along with “No Trespassing” signs.

Michael Peterson, left, and attorney David Rudolf in Episode 13 of "The Staircase." Netflix will have all 13 episodes of the documentary series (which includes three new episodes) for the first time starting June 8. NETFLIX

“We do not see tour buses pulling up into the neighborhood,” Metzloff said. “You can’t go inside and see the house. As a drive-by, it’s hard to see the house from any place. But the owners after Peterson did put up barbed wire because they were concerned that people would be coming. I don’t think that’s something that we worry about in Forest Hills.”

The house is currently owned by clairvoyant and medium Biond Fury, who paid $1.3 million for it in 2008. The current Durham County tax appraisal is $1.9 million.

Fury declined to comment for this article.

The only other possible attractions for curious viewers would be the Durham courthouse where the trial took place, which is gone, and Kathleen’s grave at Maplewood Cemetery.

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More than entertainment value

There is value in documentaries like “Making a Murderer” and “The Staircase” beyond entertainment, Buting said, because they are a window into the criminal justice system.

“Until ‘Making a Murderer’ — I’ve said this many times — ‘Staircase’ was really the only other documentary I could think of that really went behind the scenes with pre-trial preparation of the defense,” he said. “Giving people an idea of what it was like to represent somebody and to prepare and tell what it was like for the defendant.”

The benefit for democracy is even greater, Buting said.

“These kinds of documentaries I think do kind of lift a veil off of what happens in the criminal justice system,” Buting said. “And I think the more people understand about it, the better. Because in any kind of democracy, the whole justice system is supposed to serve the people, and if what happens is not what the people want to see happen in their courts, then they’ll demand reform.

“And in my opinion, there’s an awful lot that needs reform in our criminal justice system.”

Brooke Cain: 919-829-4579, bcain@newsobserver.com, @warmtv, @brookecain


About ‘The Staircase’

Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade was fresh off an Academy Award win for his documentary “Murder on a Sunday Morning” in 2002 when he took his crew to Durham to embed with Michael Peterson’s family and defense team as Peterson prepared to go on trial for the murder of his wife Kathleen.

The poster for the new episodes of "The Staircase" set to debut June 8 on Netflix. Netflix

De Lestrade’s documentary was remarkable in that it featured an unprecedented look behind the scenes at a defense team’s pre-trial preparations in a murder case.

Viewers were at the table as Peterson discussed strategy with criminal defense attorneys David Rudolf and Tom Maher, with investigators and with jury consultants. “The Staircase” also showed the family — Peterson’s two adopted daughters and his two biological sons — as they struggled to deal with their father being on trial for the murder of the woman who helped raise them (Kathleen’s biological daughter had defected to the “he did it” camp prior to De Lestrade’s arrival).

The series chronicled the three-month trial with all of its OMG surprises — from both the prosecution and defense — plus its verdict and the aftermath. And not just the immediate aftermath. “The Staircase” has chronicled developments in the story over its 15-year span.

The eight-episode series was first available in England to viewers of the BBC. “Death on the Staircase” aired on BBC in January 2005 as part of the network’s “Storyville” documentary series. In April of that year, “The Staircase” aired on the Sundance TV channel in the United States. That same year it won the prestigious Peabody Award.

The crew returned to Durham in 2012 to film two more episodes updating developments in the case. Those episodes were released in 2013. The three new episodes debuting Friday were filmed over the past three years, covering further developments in Michael Peterson’s journey through the justice system.

The entire series, including the three new episodes, are available on Netflix starting Friday.


The Peterson case in popular culture

In addition to “The Staircase,” the Peterson case has been the subject of numerous true-crime TV shows, books and podcasts. Here are just a few examples:

A 2006 episode of the Headline News series “Forensic Files” focused on the Peterson case. The episode was called “A Novel Idea.”

In 2007, a Lifetime movie called “The Staircase Murders” starred Treat Williams as Michael Peterson and Kevin Pollak as Peterson’s attorney, David Rudolf.

The premiere episode (“Animal Instincts”) of the acclaimed Criminal podcast in 2014 was devoted to The Owl Theory and included an interview with Peterson’s neighbor Larry Pollard.

The French documentary “The Staircase” was the inspiration for the first season of the NBC sitcom “Trial & Error,” which aired in March 2017. In that show, a poetry professor (John Lithgow) goes on trial for the murder of his wife, who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in front of a shattered window. In the final episode of the season, after the husband is convicted and sent to prison, cellphone video is discovered of the wife being attacked and killed by an owl. (An owl attack was one of the more unusual theories floated as a possibility for Kathleen Peterson’s death.)

Durham attorney Tom Loflin (left), self-described male escort Brent Wolgamott (center), 28, of Raleigh, N.C., and Durham assistant DA Freda Black look over an email the former Fort Bragg soldier testified about in the Michael Peterson murder trial. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

In April 2017, NBC’s “Dateline” tackled the Peterson case with an episode called “Down the Back Staircase.” Peterson was interviewed by Dennis Murphy.

Late last year, a BBC podcast called “Beyond Reasonable Doubt?” examined the case and scored a long interview with Michael Peterson. Reporter Chris Warburton also interviewed the Petersons’ former neighbor, Larry Pollard, who came up with the infamous “Owl Theory.”

In December 2017, the popular podcast “My Favorite Murder” released a special 100th episode about the case. “The Staircase” documentary was one of the things hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstock bonded over the first time they met.

The Investigation Discovery (ID) channel ran a three-part series on the Peterson case on April 8, 2018, called “American Murder Mystery: The Staircase.” The series included interviews with Durham District Attorney Jim Hardin, the former male escort Brent Wolgamott (aka Brad from Raleigh) who was called to testify at the trial, with Kathleen Peterson’s sister Candace Hunt Zamperini, who initially defended Michael Peterson but later testified against him.

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