One night in December 2001, Michael Peterson called 911 reporting his wife to be dying on the staircase after she had fallen, which immediately turned into a murder case landing Michael defending himself in court. Netflix Original Documentary Series The Staircase gives a terrifying insight into the criminal justice system.
Check out Daniel Hart’s review on Youtube here.
It is useful to know that the Netflix Original Documentary series The Staircase first came to our screens in 2004, as an 8-episode series following the case of Michael Peterson, the man who allegedly murdered his wife on their staircase. Of course, his claim is that she fell down the stairs and the brutal injuries that occurred were a sad accident that took the love of his life. Due to the tightropes of the criminal justice system, the documentary series took an abrupt halt, only to resurface on the streaming giant Netflix 14 years later. We have been spoilt with the likes of Making a Murderer and Amanda Knox, which have not only gripped the binge-watchers but allowed avid tweeters to become expert armchair lawyers whilst wiping their Doritos grease down their comfy pajamas.
The obvious flaw is that we are only presented with what the documentary wants us to see, raising doubt to the balance of arguments, making at least the smart viewers question what the filmmaker wants us to see. However, it is glaringly obvious that Netflix is exposing a trend that the courts would not like us to see – gaping holes and incompetence.
The Staircase puts you through a rollercoaster of various exciting legal proceedings, but it also leaves you wondering whether the system gives a person a fair chance. Admittedly, Michael Peterson does appear guilty, and in the opening episode when you witness the photos of his wife on the staircase and the lacerations on her head, you immediately allow your mind to go down a path of judgment. That is the problem, though; I immediately jumped to the assumptions because we are conditioned to think the worst. The Netflix documentary series shows the toxic relationship between the prosecution and the media with the immediate view that Michael is a cold-blooded staircase murderer. The scary realization is that the story is better than the facts; a rich novelist, with a perceived perfect marriage, murders his wife one night – a journalist’s dream. It is almost romantic.
The Staircase, like Making a Murderer, offers a horrifying examination of the loopholes the prosecution explore when trying to get their suspect into jail. It is difficult to watch at times, as Michael’s defense lawyer David Rudolf rips apart the prosecution’s evidence in the courtroom at such an alarming speed that not even the attorney could interject and offer a curveball. Of course, more comes to the surface which shocks you further, but the documentary series makes you question whether something drastically needs to change. A person on trial deserves one fairly, safe in the knowledge that all evidence presented is clear-cut and used to potentially undermine or defend you based on science or an eye-witness. Michael is rich, which has given him the opportunity to have a hot-shot defense lawyer that can expose the holes of the prosecution – an average citizen would be behind bars before the jury got a good look at them.
The victim is always thought of during these cases, but The Staircase does a thorough job in highlighting how the pain of the criminal justice system hurts not only the person claiming to be innocent but the family who have to endure the trials as well. During the trials in The Staircase, the children are witnessing an assessment of how their mother died, but from the point of the view of the prosecution and the defense. For a young family, the stress and hurt that they must go through feels sore and cold.
The greatest strength of Netflix’s The Staircase is that the defense lawyer David Rudolf is the lead person in nearly every episode, providing you with an insight into law and his thought process before each day of the trial. What is clear is that a criminal case is more a chess match than a place of facts, with both the defense and prosecution playing their pieces carefully, ensuring that they gain the best advantage with the jury. I am confident that a man like David Rudolf, with the money he makes, has done a fine job in giving a guilty person a “not guilty” verdict in the past, but that’s where the pitfalls lie; it is about who plays the best game. Michael Peterson had the money to play the strategic hands but even with heavy finances, you cannot prepare for a system that plays dirty, which is what is presented in The Staircase. The documentary series persuades you to believe Michael Peterson is innocent. I believe he is and you will too.
What is abundantly clear is that something needs to change. Regardless of the fact that The Staircase’s court case is confined to the medium of a Netflix documentary series, its daunting how much is seemingly corrupt against the defendant. We already know that the criminal justice system relies on the process but the time for change is transparent. With a growing industry of exoneration lawyers in the US, it is the sad truth that the profession is only needed because the system is letting people down. The Staircase is entertaining but only because of those chilling moments leading up to the verdict and the revealing scenes where you become absolutely flabbergasted by what you have seen. You need to be prepared for episodes that bring on tears but also ready yourself for a random burst of anger that overcomes you like a sudden wave. Put time aside for The Staircase, it is addictive and will raise many questions.
I wait for the armchair lawyers to return. The Staircase is a fine piece of work giving a horrifying insight into the flawed justice system.
Daniel Hart is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has operated as Editor-in-Chief since 2017.