Is The Staircase a true story - and where is Michael Peterson today?

The Staircase HBO
(Image credit: HBO Max)

Colin Firth and Toni Collette play the lead roles in this chilling series that has left viewers wondering, is The Staircase a true story? 

Released on May 5th, episodes are now available to watch on Sky TV and Now TV in the UK. With three of its eight episodes screened back to back, it's proven to be an instant hit with HBO Max viewers. A new episode will be aired each week until June 9th, keeping fans in suspense.

As well as wondering where The Staircase is filmed, viewers also want to know if The Staircase HBO is a true story. We report the real-life events behind the show...

Is The Staircase a true story?

Yes, The Staircase on HBO Max is based on a true story. It explores the life of crime novelist Michael Peterson (played by Colin Firth), his sprawling North Carolina family, and the suspicious death of his wife, Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette). The TV drama miniseries focuses on the real-life 2003 murder trial that saw Michael accused of murdering his wife in Durham, North Carolina after she was found dead at the bottom of the staircase of their family home in 2001.

The docu-series takes inspiration from a French documentary series, which was later expanded by Netflix, of the same name, and directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.

The case has been described as "one of the most notorious and longest-running criminal cases in (research) Triangle history."

Was Michael Peterson guilty in The Staircase?

Michael Peterson was initially found guilty of murdering his wife after she was found dead at the bottom of the staircase of their family home in 2001 but was later convicted of voluntary manslaughter. It was first revealed that Peterson called an emergency line to report that he had just found Kathleen unconscious in their Forest Hills neighbourhood home in Durham, North Carolina, and suspected she had fallen down "fifteen, twenty, I don't know" stairs.

He later claimed that he had been outside by the pool and had come in at 2.40 am to find Kathleen at the foot of the stairs. Peterson said she must have fallen down the stairs after consuming alcohol and Valium. But forensic expert Henry Lee, hired by Peterson's defense, testified that the blood-spatter evidence was consistent with an accidental fall down the stairs, and police investigators concluded that the injuries were inconsistent with such an accident.

And as Peterson was the only person at the residence at the time of Kathleen's death, he was the prime suspect and was soon charged with her murder.

He pleaded not guilty. He pled guilty in 2017 under an Alford plea, which allows a defendant to proclaim their innocence while acknowledging the state has enough evidence to convict them. But a retrial resulted in Michael's sentence being reduced to one of voluntary manslaughter.

What was Kathleen Peterson’s cause of death?

Kathleen Peterson's cause of death, according to the post-mortem examination, she suffered multiple lacerations of the head consistent with a flat object, that flat object was a step of the stair against which her head impacted several times, not because she fell down the stairs but because Michael Peterson slammed her head against those stairs.

The autopsy report said the number, severity, locations and orientation of these injuries are inconsistent with a fall down the stairs; instead they are indicative of multiple impacts received as a result of beating.

Michael and Kathleen Peterson

The Staircase, Michael and Kathleen Peterson.

How many years did Michael Peterson get?

Michael Peterson was originally handed life in prison without the possibility of parole on October 10th, 2003 after one of the longest trials in North Carolina history. The Durham County jury found him guilty of the murder of his wife Kathleen. Life imprisonment is any sentence under which convicted people are to remain in prison for the rest of their natural lives or indefinitely until pardoned, paroled, or otherwise commuted to a fixed term.

However, after serving just eight years of his life sentence, Peterson was granted a new trial after the judge ruled a critical prosecution witness gave misleading testimony. Following the retrial, his sentence was reduced to one of voluntary manslaughter.

On February 24, 2017, Peterson entered an Alford plea - to the voluntary manslaughter of Kathleen. An Alford plea is when a defendant enters a guilty plea because there is sufficient evidence to convict him of the offense but the defendant asserts innocence

He was sentenced to a maximum of 86 months in prison (7.1 years) with credit for time previously served and because he had already served more time than the new sentence (98.5 months) he did not face additional prison time and was released in 2017.

Is Mike Peterson still alive?

Michael Peterson is still alive, out of prison, and now aged 78. His defense attorney David Rudolf told Oxygen in 2019 that Peterson was reportedly living in Durham in a ground-floor apartment with no staircase. He sold the house he owned with his wife Kathleen back in 2004.

According to Newsweek, he entered a relationship with an editor on the 2004 documentary The Staircase, and the two dated from 2011 to 2017.

Where is Micheal Peterson's family now? 

Michael Peterson had five children and for a time, they were a close-knit family. His children included two sons, Todd and Clay, who were both Peterson's biological sons from his first marriage, and three daughters, Margaret, Martha, and Caitlin. But The Staircase docuseries inadvertently followed the unspooling of their family ties.

Margaret and Martha, Peterson's adopted daughters, were the children of a close family friend, Elizabeth Ratliff, who had also died after falling down a staircase. The case was eerily similar to what happened to Kathleen nearly two decades later.

Meanwhile, Caitlin Atwater, Kathleen's only biological child, and Michael's stepdaughter, sided with the prosecution during Michael's trial for Kathleen's death. Caitlin was the only one of the couple's five children to state that she believed Peterson had murdered her mother, and she subsequently won a $25 million civil suit against him in 2007, according to WRAL.

Michael Peterson's sons and daughters - except Caitlin - have continued to stand by their father and remain in each other's lives. According to Bustle, Peterson's son Clayton now lives in Maryland with his two children, and his other son, Todd, resides in Tennessee, Martha lives in Colorado, and Margaret in California.

The Staircase

The Staircase; Todd Peterson, Martha Ratliff, Kathleen Peterson, Michael Peterson, Caitlin Atwater, Margaret (Ratliff) Blakemore.

What is the owl theory in The Staircase?

A new theory about how Kathleen died was raised in late 2009 and suggested that she had been attacked by a barred owl outside, fallen after rushing inside, and been knocked unconscious after hitting her head on the first tread of the stairs. This bizarre theory was raised by Durham attorney T. Lawrence Pollard, after a neighbour of the Petersons, who was not involved in the case but had been following it closely, offered police the theory after reading that the evidence had a 'feather' listed in the SBI crime lab report.

The microscopic owl feather and a wooden sliver from a tree limb entangled in a clump of hair that had been pulled out by the roots had been found clutched in Kathleen's left hand. A re-examination of the hair in September 2008 had found two more microscopic owl feathers.

According to Pollard, had a jury been presented with this evidence it would have "materially affected their deliberation and therefore would have materially affected their ultimate verdict".

But Prosecutors have ridiculed the claim, and Deborah Radisch, who conducted Kathleen's autopsy, says it was unlikely that an owl or any other bird could have made wounds as deep as those on her scalp. However, Radisch's opinion was challenged by other experts in three separate affidavits filed in 2010.

Despite interest in this theory, no motion for a new trial was filed on this point in 2009.

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Selina Maycock
Senior Family Writer

Selina is a Senior Family Writer for GoodtoKnow and has more than 16 years years of experience. She specialises in royal family news, including the latest activities of Prince George, Charlotte, Louis, Archie and Lilibet. She also covers the latest government, health and charity advice for families. Selina graduated from the University of Sheffield in 2006 with a degree in Journalism, and gained her NCTJ and NCE qualifications. During her career, she’s also written for Woman, Woman's Own, Woman&Home, and Woman's Weekly as well as Heat magazine, Bang Showbiz - and the Scunthorpe Telegraph. When she's not covering family news, you can find her exploring new countryside walking routes, catching up with friends over good food, or making memories (including award-winning scarecrows!)