On December 9, 2001, the North Carolina emergency services received a call from a distressed Michael Peterson, who reported that he had found his wife Kathleen unconscious at the bottom of the stairs of their Forest Hills mansion. Peterson, a successful author and Vietnam veteran, became the number one suspect and soon was arrested and charged with his wife’s murder. Pleading not guilty, the lengthy trial that followed was to become the basis of one of the most popular documentaries Netflix has produced to date: The Staircase. Over thirteen episodes, audiences were exposed to every aspect of the trial, including Peterson’s previously hidden bisexuality, his involvement in a similar death some years previously, the divisions caused in his family, the innate fallibility of the American legal system and the now infamous Owl Theory, all under the watchful eye of David Rudolf, Peterson’s dutiful criminal defence lawyer.
Did you expect the enormous worldwide response to The Staircase?
I think it’s a really excellent documentary, so I’m not surprised that it’s received a lot of positive response. I’m a little surprised how much people are interested in it over here; in some ways the response in the UK, in terms of speaking engagements, has been better than in the United States. It’s been interesting. I’m not quite sure why that is, but I think there might be more of a history of people going out and listening to the spoken word, as opposed to the States, where people want to be entertained rather than educated. I had 1,000 people at the O2 in Glasgow in October, so it was surprising that so many people turned out. I was involved in the case for sixteen years; it was a major part of my adult life. I had no idea that it would turn into something this massive and worldwide. When we started this in 2002, Netflix didn’t really exist. It was Blockbuster, where you’d go to the video store to rent a VHS. Who could have predicted this?
At one point in the documentary, you stated that, “When the jury came in, it didn’t just disappoint me, it shook the foundations of my beliefs in the justice system.” Is that still how you feel?
It is – I don’t think you ever get over that. I think I’ve been able to move past it in the sense that I’ve shifted the focus of my practice somewhat. You just have to put things behind you at some point. It dramatically affected my faith in the jury system.
What was your initial reaction when that guilty verdict was read out?
It was a complete shock. I felt that once we found that blow poke, there was no way that the jury could convict. The jury had spent the previous four months talking about how that was the murder weapon. (State Medical Examiner) Deborah Radisch had said that it was consistent with the injuries, and (Blood Splatter Analyst) Duane Deaver had brandished it around whilst claiming that it had inflicted the wounds. So once we’d found it, it was hard to believe that a jury could actually convict, when the murder weapon was no longer missing.
As Michael Peterson’s defence lawyer, what did the immediate aftermath of that guilty verdict entail?
I was mostly fielding media requests. I was trying to be professional, trying to be respectful to people who were trying to do their jobs in reporting the verdict. I was pretty much on automatic pilot at that point. A big part of the reason that I agreed to this filming was to show people what criminal defence lawyers actually do, rather than the way we have been portrayed in the popular media, and to give people a behind-the-scenes look into the criminal justice system, how it works and what problems there are. I think the documentary does a very good job of demystifying and educating people about the criminal justice system.
The documentary was also great at shattering the illusion of a jury being made up of twelve open minded, unbiased individuals. How important was the jury selection process?
Unfortunately, the documentary really couldn’t show that process, because they weren’t allowed to film the jurors as they were being interviewed for selection. But it took a very long time, we started interviewing jurors in early May and we didn’t really have the jury selected until the beginning of July. We were literally in court every day questioning prospective jurors, many of whom had already formed opinions so that they could not be fair, and were willing to admit to that. Even with those who did say they could be fair, you want to try and figure out who is willing to listen to the evidence, and make a decision that is not based on emotion, but based on logic. You have a certain amount of challenges once you get past the people who just can’t be fair, and then what you’re really doing is knocking off the people who you feel aren’t going to be suitable for the case. And what you’re left with is a group that is actually going to be sitting. It’s a misnomer to think that you’re selecting a jury; you’re really deselecting jurors from serving.
One of the most shocking moments of the entire documentary comes when it jumps forward in time to show Michael Peterson after he has served several years in prison. Are you still in contact with him?
I am still in contact with him, and he’s doing a lot better. But like you, when I first saw Michael in 2011, I hadn’t seen him in at least a couple of years at that point. We had talked on the phone, but I had moved to Charlotte, which was much further away from his prison then I used to be. Seeing him walk into the courthouse the way he looked was a shocking experience for me as well. He’d aged twenty years in a very short period of time.
It is a shocking window for people to understand that what they thought was a fairly reliable system has defects that are so fundamental
Since the documentary has aired, a huge amount of attention has been paid to the now infamous ‘Owl Theory,’ which suggests that Kathleen Peterson’s injuries were more consistent with the talons of a species of owl that is both local to the area in which she died, and has been known to attack people, as well as the fact that microscopic owl feathers were found in her hand. Was it frustrating for you to be presented with a theory that, when you first hear about it, sounds so incredible?
It wasn’t frustrating initially, because it wasn’t really on my radar during the original trial. Larry Pollard first came to me a couple of days before closing argument to explain his theory, and obviously I couldn’t do anything with it at that point. I couldn’t even investigate it or explore it, because the trial was essentially over – I was just getting ready to give my closing argument. Frankly, when it was first presented to me my reaction was the same as most people: it seemed outlandish. It really wasn’t until after we got Michael a new trial, and Pollard had been able to get some expert witnesses who were able to explain to me in a much more scientific way why the theory had some plausibility, that I really considered it. I think it’s an interesting thesis, and I certainly think it’s a plausible theory.
Although cases like those presented in The Staircase and, in a similar vein, Making a Murderer, portray gross miscarriages of justice, do you think there are any positives to be found in the fact that they are being opened up to such a wide audience around the world?
I do. As a matter of fact, I think that’s the most important thing to take away from these types of documentaries. They have opened people’s eyes to some of the problems that those who have worked in this area have known about for many, many years. They’ve served a valuable purpose in that regard, and a lot of us that work in this field are hoping that it’s an opening for people to begin to understand the need for reform. I think that’s part of the reason they’ve become so popular, it is a shocking window for people to understand that what they thought was a fairly reliable system has defects that are so fundamental. I think that’s part of the appeal, but the other part is that these cases went on over a long period of time, so the audience is able to see the various different characters, whether it’s the lawyers or the defendants, over a long period of time, and get to know them as people.
Is your involvement with the Peterson case completely finished now? And if so, what does the future hold for you?
I think the Peterson case is over, sixteen years is long enough to spend on any one case! I’ve started working much more on wrongful conviction cases, working with people who have served sentences for crimes they didn’t commit as a result of police misconduct, so we’ve been trying to get them compensation for what they’ve gone through, although it can never make up for the time they’ve lost, to try and give them a way of going forward in a more comfortable lifestyle. I’m focused on that, and we’ll just see what else the future will bring. I’ve learnt over my lifetime not to guess too much; things just happen as they happen.
For more information about David Rudolf's live speaking engagements, visit his website
The Staircase is available to watch on Netflix now