Michael and Kathleen Peterson seemingly had it all: the perfect family; the perfect house; the perfect marriage. All of this changed in a matter of moments when a 911 call detailing a fall down the stairs, changed the world’s perception of the Peterson’s outwardly perfect life. Married in 1997, family and friends would claim that the couple had a perfect relationship, but when Michael is taken into custody for the murder of Kathleen, dark secrets begin to come to light, tarnishing the couples ideal image.
Novelist, columnist, and former soldier Michael Peterson had two sons – Todd and Clayton – from a former marriage. He would later adopt two daughters – Martha and Margaret – after their father, a fellow soldier, passed away. Martha and Margaret’s mother also died and was found dead in Germany. Kathleen, having been previously married, had a daughter: Caitlin. Together they successfully merged their families into a happy unit, moving to 1810 Cedar Street, Durham, North Carolina.On the night of 9th December, 2001, with the children away at college or at friends’ houses, Michael and Kathleen made the most of having the house to themselves. They made dinner, watched a movie, and enjoyed a few glasses of wine. From this point, the story gets murky, as Michael claims that the couple went outside to the pool, where they continued drinking and talking until Kathleen decided to return to the house and continue working. Michael claims to enter the house at around 2:30 am, where he discovered Kathleen’s body at the bottom of the staircase and called 911 at 2:40am. He called again six minutes later to report that Kathleen had now stopped breathing. Crime scene investigators arrived promptly to analyze the situation and formed the conclusion that the crime scene did not fit with a fall down the stairs, thus implicating Michael Peterson murdered his wife. As investigators worked, one thing became increasingly clear: Michael Peterson was an incredibly complex man.
The prosecution was able to find damning evidence against Michael. Neuropathologists testified that there was evidence of red neurons in Kathleen’s brain, indicating that oxygen had failed to reach brain tissues. The number of red neurons present indicated that Kathleen had been dead for around two hours before any emergency call was made. The prosecution argued that the volume of blood found at the crime scene and Kathleen’s injuries were inconsistent with the fall, which the defence rebuked, claiming that as there were no fractures on Kathleen’s skull. The defence’s own expert testified that the blood spatters on the wall were consistent with a fall. It is important to note that years after the original Peterson trial, the Prosecution’s blood pattern analysis expert from the SBI, Duane Deaver, was fired in 2011 due to improper practice and arguably false testimony.
The prosecution also discovered that Michael was bisexual and had been arranging meetings with male prostitutes. When searching his computer, images of male pornography were found, and the prosecution argued that Kathleen discovered this when using Michael’s computer, and her discovery would have angered Michael enough to kill her. However, Michael argued that Kathleen was aware of his bisexuality and that this was simply not true.
Perhaps the most provocative pieces of evidence came from a death that occurred in Germany years before, and involved the mother of Michaels adoptive daughters, Elizabeth Ratliff. She had been found in her home, which was next door to Peterson, at the bottom of a staircase. Throughout court proceedings, Ratliff’s body was exhumed, and a new autopsy posed that she could have been murdered. The prosecution asked the question: Was Elizabeth the first victim of Michael Peterson? With the discovery of financial issues between the couple and a life insurance policy of $1.4 million on Kathleen, the evidence stacked up against Peterson.
Whether Michael killed his wife remains a mystery. Michael Peterson pleaded guilty to manslaughter in February 2017 through the Alford plea, meaning he accepted guilt without admitting that he killed her, despite being found guilty already in October 2003. Michael’s children, Clayton, Todd, Martha and Margaret, all stand by their father. However, his stepdaughter Caitlin, who initially stood by Michael, quickly began to believe that Michael had killed her mother. Interest in the case sparked several documentaries being made about the murder, including Netflix’s The Staircase. It’s important to note that one of The Staircase’s producers was romantically involved with Michael during filming, perhaps showing some bias within the documentary. The case itself remains unsolved, and there is still great debate over Michael Peterson’s guilty plea.
by Kellie Ayres & Rhian Davies