Michael Peterson says Netflix doc Staircase helped overturn conviction
EXCLUSIVE: North Carolina novelist convicted of murdering his wife who was found dead at the bottom of staircase believes he finally walked free thanks to Netflix documentary edited by his LOVER
- WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT
- Michael Peterson, 74, believes he was able to get his conviction for murdering his wife overturned with help of Netflix true crime docu-series, The Staircase
- His wife Kathleen, 47, was found slumped and bloodied at the bottom of a staircase in the family home in Durham, North Carolina
- Filmmakers have admitted that the editor of the series, Sophie Brunet, had a 15-year-long affair with accused killer Peterson
- Speaking to DailyMail.com, he denies there was bias in the edits, but admits the show ‘was a very powerful instrument in my conviction being overturned’
- According to the show, Kathleen’s autopsy found seven lacerations on her scalp, sustained by falling, when attempting to get up but slipping on her own blood
- But the report, viewed by DailyMail.com, actually details 35 separate bruises, and wounds described by the examiner as consistent with a severe beating
- The documentary makes no mention of the fact that her time of death was estimated to be a full three hours before Peterson called 911
A North Carolina novelist who served eight years in prison for murdering his wife says he believes he owes his freedom to a Netflix documentary now mired in controversy.
Last week filmmakers were forced to admit that the editor of The Staircase, filmed across 16 years and shown in 13 episodes, fell in love with accused killer, Michael Peterson, during filming.
Paris-based Sophie Brunet engaged in an affair with Peterson that lasted 15 years and only ended last May.
The family of Peterson’s slain wife Kathleen has slammed The Staircase as a ‘pseudo-documentary,’ and as his, ‘ultimate vanity project.’
Now, in an exclusive interview with DailyMail.com, Peterson, 74, has rejected that claim and defended the work.
Michael Peterson, 74, spent eight years in prison for the murder of his wife Kathleen in 2001 – but his conviction was later overturned in 2011
Netflix series The Staircase documents Peterson’s life and murder trial over a period of 16 years. He has admitted that the show was ‘a very powerful instrument’ in his conviction being overturned
The show’s editor, Paris-based Sophie Brunet (pictured) engaged in an affair with Peterson that lasted 15 years and only ended last May. Peterson claims he did not physically meet Brunet until after his conviction
‘I wouldn’t say that my relationship with Sophie, or its end, influenced any decisions as to what was included or excluded in any way positively or negatively,’ he said.
However he admitted that the footage proved to be ‘a very powerful instrument,’ in his conviction being overturned in 2011 when it emerged that the prosecution’s blood spatter expert SBI Agent Duane Deaver had lied under oath.
Peterson said: ‘A lot of the original Netflix film was used in my appeal when Duane Deaver is on the stand.
Last week filmmakers were forced to admit that the editor of The Staircase, Sophie Brunet, fell in love with accused killer, Michael Peterson, during filming
‘I feel that tipped it because you can see him just lying and lying to the judge and that footage is a lot more powerful than words in a transcript.
‘The judge is seeing this and thinking, “That bastard was lying to me.”
‘So I think The Staircase was a very powerful instrument in my conviction being overturned.’
Once out of prison, he said, his relationship with Brunet, ‘really took off.’
‘It was a completely unexpected thing to come out of all of this,’ he said.
It is just the latest twist in a saga that began with Kathleen Peterson’s horrific death in December 2001 when she was found slumped and bloodied at the bottom of a staircase in the family home in Durham, North Carolina. She was 47. She had multiple scalp lacerations and had bled out.
Kathleen Peterson (pictured) 47, was found slumped and bloodied at the bottom of a staircase in the family home in Durham, North Carolina in December 2001
Kathleen was found with multiple lacerations to her scalp. Peterson’s story is that his wife fell drunkenly down the stairs
Pictured is the staircase spattered with Kathleen’s blood. The original trial concluded with Peterson being convicted of first degree murder of his wife, but that conviction was thrown out because one of the prosecution’s main witnesses, a blood spatter analyst, had conducted flawed tests and misled the jury
Peterson is presented as a man with nothing to gain from his wife’s death, but he submitted a claim for $1.8M from his wife’s life insurance
The case divided the family. Kathleen’s sisters, Candace Zamperini, 60, and Lori Campbell, 49, and her daughter from her first marriage, Catilin Atwater, 36, believe Peterson is guilty.
His sons, Todd, 41, and Clayton, 43, and adopted daughters, Martha, 36 and Margaret Ratliff, 38, from his first marriage are equally convinced of his innocence.
Peterson was offered a retrial but took an Alford Plea on the lesser charge of manslaughter in return for his release last February.
The plea is treated as guilty by the court but allows the accused to maintain their innocence while admitting that there was enough evidence to convict them.
Speaking in court on the day he took the plea deal, Zamperini said: ‘Alford Schmalford….it means guilty. You will be treated as guilty of murdering my sister Kathleen and you will be a convicted felon forever.’
Zamperini also singled out The Staircase as a final insult.
She said: ‘Michael Peterson was not satisfied with murdering my sister now…he would have a movie made that he could star in, that he could pontificate, he could tell everybody how incompetent the Durham police and justice system was. He could proclaim his innocence.’
Today, Peterson insists that there was never any bias in his lover Brunet’s edit.
In fact, he says, he did not physically meet Brunet until after his conviction as she edited the initial rushes in Paris.
But it is clear from his own recollections that she believed him to be innocent.
He recalled: ‘It was 2004. I was in prison and I got a letter from Sophie saying, “I just feel terrible about what happened – we all do because we think it was a terrible trial.” And saying she wanted to be a friend.
The case has divided the family with Michael’s children, Caitlin Atwater, Clayton Peterson, Todd Peterson, Martha Ratliff, Margaret (Ratliff) Blakemore convinced of his innocence while Kathleen’s family believes he is guilty
‘So I wrote back and then she sent me some books and we corresponded and about a year and a half later she wanted to come and visit.’
Peterson recalled: ‘We got along so well she would come two or three times a year and it was just wonderful.’
After his release he visited her in France and they traveled the states together, but broke up last May when he could not commit to living in France permanently.
Peterson described her as ‘professional and righteous’ saying ‘I don’t think our relationship affected her work in any way. There were hundreds of hours of footage – it had to be cut somewhere.’
But a DailyMail.com investigation has uncovered a litany of damning evidence and history omitted from the final cut. What is left out calls into question the entire set up of an untroubled family and blissful marriage shattered by one tragic and inexplicable event.
Peterson’s story is that his wife fell drunkenly down the stairs. He says they watched American Sweethearts with two bottles of wine and champagne, and then took their drinks outside to sit by the pool.
Kathleen went in. He remained there. When he finally followed, he claims, he found her at the bottom of the stairs and called 911.
In his first 911 call he tells the dispatcher, ‘She’s still breathing.’ A few minutes later, in a second call, he says she is not.
The documentary makes no mention of the fact that her time of death was estimated to be a full three hours before he ever made a call.
According to the documentary Kathleen’s autopsy found seven lacerations on her scalp, sustained by falling, attempting to get up and falling again due to slipping on her own blood.
Michael Peterson, seen hugging an unknown women outside of his Durham, North Carolina home
Peterson (pictured at his home) says he is innocent but doesn’t care that he has a manslaughter conviction
But the full autopsy, viewed by DailyMail.com, actually details 35 separate bruises, marks and wounds described by the medical examiner as consistent with a severe beating.
She had defensive wounds on her arms, wrists and hands, bruises on her face and back and had been strangled.
Right from the start, Peterson is presented as the ‘perfect husband,’ whose marriage to Kathleen was the envy of all.
They lived in an 11,000 square foot Durham home, set in four acres and funded by her salary as a Nortel Networks executive and his earnings from three successful novels inspired by the former Marine’s service in Vietnam.
Their blended family – of three beautiful girls and two square-jawed boys – seems close and untroubled.
But in reality eldest son Clayton, then 27, was barely out of prison himself. In 1997 he was sentenced to four years in Federal prison for planting a pipe bomb in Duke University. Investigators found six more in the Peterson’s home and materials to make a further 13.
Two of the bombs were rigged to arrows that could be fired from a crossbow.
The Federal prosecutor described Clayton as ‘dangerous and deadly.’
The full autopsy report, viewed by DailyMail.com, actually details 35 separate bruises, marks and wounds described by the medical examiner as consistent with a severe beating
Kathleen had defensive wounds on her arms, wrists and hands, bruises on her face and back and had been strangled
The documentary makes no mention of the fact that Kathleen’s time of death was estimated to be a full three hours before Peterson made a call
Similarly Peterson’s own brushes with the law and history of lying are glossed over. In 1994 he ran for mayor and during his campaign was forced to admit that a leg injury he claimed was a war wound was actually the result of a car crash. He also lied about getting a Purple Heart and concealed a DWI.
Crucially, Peterson is presented as a man with nothing to gain from his wife’s death.
And speaking with DailyMail.com, the novelist flat said: ‘People talk about her life insurance of $1.4million. But I wasn’t the beneficiary!’
But he didn’t seem to know that when he submitted a claim on her $1.45million life insurance and claimed $346,998.59 from his late wife’s deferred compensation.
In fact Peterson’s claims totaling close to $1.8million claim were under consideration at the time of his trial.
Kathleen stood to lose these benefits if she lost her job – something she was worried about as Nortel Networks were laying people off.
And a central part of the prosecution was that the couple was in financial straits with $140,000 in credit card debt.
But that was not true, according to Peterson, who last week said they were ‘rich enough’ to cover it.
He went onto say that they were ‘living within their means.’
But court records show they were not. In fact between 1999 and 2001, the year of Kathleen’s death, they spent almost $380,000 more than they earned.
As for that ‘perfect husband,’ police found searches for gay pornography and emails from Peterson arranging to meet up with a male prostitute for sex.
The marital home of Michael and Kathleen Peterson in Durham, NC home. The home is the site of the grisly murder of Kathleen Peterson
They believed that Kathleen found these emails, sparking an altercation that ended with her death.
The defense argued that Kathleen knew about her husband’s bisexuality and was ‘okay’ with this aspect of his personality.
The filmmakers fail to mention that cops not only found more than 2,500 images of gay porn and copious emails from Peterson attempting to solicit sex with men when his wife was out, he had attempted to run software designed to scrub information from the hard drive.
Viewers are given a similarly selective version of the circumstances surrounding the death of Martha and Margaret Ratliff’s mother, Elizabeth, his first wife Patti’s best friend.
Like Kathleen, Elizabeth was in her 40s when she was found dead at the bottom of her stairs. Peterson was the last person to see her alive.
Peterson’s defense attorney, David Rudolph rubbishes the notion that there is any link, states that there was no blood at the scene and points out that her death was found to be of natural causes.
But court records and witness testimony recounted copious amounts of blood, pooled beneath Ratliff and spattered up the walls – an almost identical scene to that of Kathleen’s death.
Ratliff’s body was exhumed and a second autopsy performed by Durham’s medical examiner, Dr Deborah Radisch.
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Radisch found the cause of death to be homicide. Perhaps most damning of all, and a detail completely omitted from The Staircase, Ratliff sustained seven deep lacerations to the back of her scalp – exactly the same number as on Kathleen’s.
Today, Peterson sits in his small apartment – the vast Forest Hills mansion is long gone – shakes his head and literally laughs at such details.
‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘And people think I killed my first wife too but Patti’s alive and well!’
To him, the truth hardly seems to matter anymore. It is tempting to wonder if it ever did.
He says he is innocent but doesn’t care that he has a manslaughter conviction.
He says he doesn’t blame Kathleen’s sister, Candace, for hating him, ‘If somebody convinced me that a person had killed someone I loved. I’d hate them too.’ But he adds, ‘Though I think she went a bit overboard.’
Peterson is currently working on a book about Kathleen’s death, his time in prison, and all that has happened since.
He still wears his wedding ring and cannot bring himself to take it off because, he says, ‘it would be the final dissolution of my relationship with Kathleen.’
For Zamperini and Peterson alike, the Alford Plea was ‘justice but not perfect justice.’ Peterson was neither convicted of Kathleen’s murder nor exonerated from it.
So what did happen to Kathleen if he didn’t kill her? Peterson throws up his hands, ‘What different does it make anymore? Who was it? What was it? Would it make her less dead?
‘At a certain time you have to say it’s over.’
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