Did Michael Peterson kill his wife Kathleen, or was her death--as he claims--a tragic accident? This is the question addressed by the 2005 documentary The Staircase, directed by Academy Award winning (for his previous documentary, Murder on a Sunday Morning) filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Starting mere weeks after Kathleen's death and continuing throughout the trial, the team of filmmakers has seemingly complete access to Peterson, his defense team, his children, and other supporters. The viewer is so completely enmeshed in Peterson's life and version of the story, and his defense team's collection of evidence and strategy sessions, that there seems to be more than reasonable doubt of Peterson's guilt. The prosecutor's case seems glib and tawdry--but is that because it's actually glib and tawdry, or because the viewer is completely saturated in the defense's point of view? The filmmakers also raise the question of whether it is possible for Peterson to receive a fair trial. He's a columnist for the local newspaper, and he's known as a vocal detractor of the police and prosecutors. And he's a bisexual man in Durham, North Carolina. How much do these two points weigh against him? Do these facts overpower the evidence in the case? The exploration of these questions and several surprise twists buffet the series along through all eight episodes, until finally we reach the trial and verdict. Then the viewer is confronted with the ultimate question: Was justice served?
With long-form true crime reporting taking a center stage in popular culture recently through the podcast Serial and the HBO mini-series The Jinx, fans of the genre looking for something to fill the gap now that those have both ended may want to consider watching The Staircase. Fans of true crime and documentary films in general should also give it a try. And if you watch and enjoy The Staircase, be sure to check out the follow-up, The Staircase II: The Last Chance.