What is The Staircase about and where is Michael Peterson now as HBO brings this disturbing true story to life?

The Staircase HBO series explores this shocking North Carolina trial and stars Colin Firth as novelist Michael Peterson…

The Staircase starring Colin Firth as Michael Peterson
(Image credit: Sky)

The Staircase delves into the shocking events that saw novelist Michael Peterson arrested for the murder of his wife Kathleen.

If you’ve already binge-watched your way through to the Anatomy of a Scandal ending or raced through all the available episodes of the Grace ITV adaptation then you might well be looking for the next unmissable drama to add to your list. And when it comes to dark true stories HBO’s latest release has viewers covered. The Staircase brings a truly shocking series of events to life as Michael Peterson finds himself accused of his wife Kathleen's murder though he maintains his innocence.

But what is the true story behind The Staircase and where is Michael Peterson now? We reveal what you need to know as the HBO drama continues...

*Warning: spoilers ahead!*

The Staircase starring Colin Firth and Toni Collette

(Image credit: Sky)

The Staircase: True story explained

With everything from the The Dropout true story to the upcoming Candy Hulu adaptation’s shocking real-life inspiration grabbing true crime fans’ attention in recent months many viewers might well be looking into the story true that inspired HBO’s latest series, The Staircase. 

The new show takes viewers back to 2001 when the seemingly happy family life of Michael and Kathleen Peterson was shattered forever. Kathleen was discovered dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs in the couple's home in Durham, North Carolina, fuelling the suspicions of investigators who fixed her husband firmly in their sights as a suspect.

As reported by Esquire, it was Michael who made the 911 call to report his wife had had an “accident” and had “fallen down the stairs”, hence the rather enigmatic title of the HBO Max series. 

The writer is said to have claimed Kathleen was still breathing at the time, but according to the publication the investigating police officer was soon suspicious. Michael is then believed to have suggested that his wife could’ve simply tumbled down the stairs, alleging she’d drunk wine and taken Valium. However, the toxicology report didn't support this particular theory.  

Instead, the medical examiner reportedly came to the conclusion that Kathleen hadn’t fallen at all, but had been bludgeoned to death, with lacerations on her scalp indicating she’d been lying there for quite some time. Michael Peterson was soon the main suspect as the only other person who’d been in the house with her. 

The Staircase starring Colin Firth

(Image credit: Sky)

He was later arrested and put on trial for the murder of Kathleen and the prosecution suggested he’d been hoping to secure her $1.5 million life insurance policy and claimed there could’ve been friction between husband and wife over pictures of naked men on his computer. 

The defence disputed these potential motives and Michael maintained his innocence throughout and continues to proclaim it to this day. Ultimately, the jury sided against him and the novelist was found guilty and sentenced to life without parole in 2003. 

Where is Michael Peterson now? 

True crime enthusiasts who were intrigued by how John Darwin got caught and what happened after his arrest when watching recent ITV hit, The Thief, His Wife and the Canoe, might well be wondering where Michael Peterson is now after his trial. Despite being sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Kathleen in 2003, Michael’s life took a dramatically different direction once again when new evidence came to light. 

As reported by Metro.co.uk, in 2017 the writer submitted an Alford Plea to the courts to reduce his murder charge to one of manslaughter. This took place after it had previously emerged that a blood analyst who was one of the key witnesses at his original trial reportedly could have misled the jury about some of the evidence used to convict him. 

A retrial was ordered and Michael Peterson was later released from prison after his Alford Plea was successful and he was sentenced to time already served.

Michael Peterson listens as his defense attorney David Rudolph makes his opening statements

(Image credit: Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Since then reports have suggested that Michael Peterson returned to live in the town he and Kathleen had once called home. According to The Independent, a 2018 report from Associated Press claimed that Michael had moved into a 1,200 square foot condo in Durham, North Carolina. 

Now Michael Peterson is believed to live quietly in his condo, with the publication revealing that defence attorney David Rudolf allegedly once told press that the novelist is living in a ground floor apartment with no stairs at all.

What happened to Michael Peterson’s children? 

After being drawn into the suspenseful and devastating scenes of The Staircase, it's perhaps only natural to wonder what happened not only to the writer following the discovery of Kathleen's body, but what happened to Michael Peterson's children as well. The death of Kathleen and the revelations and evidence presented in the subsequent trial are understood to have split the family.

Michael Peterson has two children, Todd and Clayton Peterson, from his first marriage to Patricia Sue Peterson. Whilst he was also the legal guardian of Martha and Margaret Ratliff, whose late mother Elizabeth Ratliff was a friend of the novelist who passed away in 1985. She was also reportedly found at the bottom of a staircase when she died—something that was later brought up in Michael's trial.

The Staircase HBO Max cast

(Image credit: Sky)

Kathleen Peterson also had a child from a previous relationship, Caitlin Atwater, who is said to have been initially delighted by her mother's re-marriage to Michael. However things all changed after his arrest and trial, with The Independent reporting whilst Michael Peterson's children have supposedly shown support for their father, Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin remains convinced that Michael murdered her mother. 

In 2008, during his time behind bars, Caitlin is understood to have obtained a $25 million settlement after she filed a wrongful death lawsuit against her stepfather. She also opened up about her belief that he was responsible for what happened to Kathleen during an interview with IndyWeek in 2017.

“The only thing that I have to say about the trial and all the subsequent fallout is that, if there was any closure to possibly come from all of this, it came after sitting through the entire trial and listening day after day to all the evidence—on both sides,” she said. “And after the closing arguments, when all was said and done, I felt confident that I knew what happened."

The Staircase HBO cast led by Colin Firth

(Image credit: Sky)

"I knew what happened to my mom," she continued. "While there’s no true closure that can ever come for an event like this, for a loss this deep, I was ready to walk away and start moving forward with my life.”

Since his release from prison, Michael Peterson's children and his stepdaughter have largely remained out of the public eye and maintained a level of privacy, with Caitlin reportedly requesting that IndyWeek would not reveal where she lives. 

Now over two decades after Kathleen's death in 2001 it's thought that the Peterson family remains divided over their differing opinions on what really happened all those years ago.

How many episodes of The Staircase are there? 

There are eight episodes in HBO’s new The Staircase series meaning that there’s plenty of time to be drawn into all the dramatic twists and turns. And with the original conviction for murder turned into one of manslaughter and Michael Peterson consistently asserting his innocence in Kathleen Peterson’s murder, viewers can come to their own conclusions about what really happened that day in North Carolina as they wait for the finale. 

How to watch The Staircase in the US and UK?

For anyone hoping to watch The Staircase in the US, just like where to watch Succession season 3 and The Gilded Age, the place to head is HBO Max. The first three episodes of The Staircase landed at 3am ET time on May 5th and subsequent episodes are set to be released weekly until the highly-anticipated finale on June 9.

If you’re living in the UK and are intrigued to see how Colin Firth and Toni Collette bring Michael and Kathleen Peterson to life on screen then never fear! The Staircase is also being broadcast there on Sky Atlantic, with the series premiering at 9pm on May 5th and the first three episodes available to stream via NOW.

Subsequent The Staircase instalments will then be released on a weekly basis from then on, meaning that fans on both sides of the pond will be able to discuss their own impression of what promises to be a seriously intense final episode on the same day.

The Staircase starring Colin Firth

(Image credit: Sky)

But if you’re on vacation when the next episode of The Staircase airs then sadly you won't be able to watch the show as you normally would at home, thanks to regional restrictions. However, luckily there’s an easy solution and you can use a VPN to continue watching this hit drama. This is a handy bit of software that changes your IP address so that you can access on-demand content or live TV just as if you were at home. 

Our sister site, TechRadar, has tested all of the major VPN services and they rate ExpressVPN as the absolute best. They say, “It’s compatible with all of your devices, supports most streaming services, and ranks among the fastest. You can even install it on devices like an Amazon Fire TV Stick, Apple TV, Xbox, and PlayStation. So for a one-stop-shop, you can’t go wrong with Express.”

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Ranked among one of the fastest VPN providers, this risk-free service is also compatible with all of your devices. Enjoy access to almost any streaming service, and if you don't like it there's a 30-day money-back guarantee.

If you've never installed a VPN before, don't worry, it's quick and easy. Just follow these three steps:


  1. Download and install the VPN following ExpressVPN's easy-to-follow instructions.
  2. Once you've installed your VPN, open the app and select your server location as anywhere in the UK.
  3. With your VPN installed and server location set to US or UK, you can now watch The Staircase online. 

VPN disclaimer

(Image credit: Future)

Who’s in The Staircase cast? 

The Staircase cast list:

  • Michael Peterson—Colin Firth
  • Kathleen Peterson—Toni Collette
  • Todd Peterson—Patrick Schwarzenegger 
  • Clayton Peterson—Dane DeHaan
  • Martha Ratliff—Odessa Young
  • Margaret Ratliff—Sophie Turner 
  • Caitlin Atwater—Olivia DeJonge
  • David Rudolf—Michael Stuhlbarg
  • Candace Zamperini—Rosemarie DeWitt

Perhaps the most prominent members of The Staircase cast are the star of one of the best period dramas (who could forget him as Dr Darcy?) Colin Firth as Michael Peterson and Knives Out star Toni Collette as Kathleen. They are joined by Patrick Schwarzenegger and Dane DeHaan as Michael Peterson’s sons Todd and Clayton, Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner as Margaret Ratliff, and Odessa Young as her sister Martha Ratliff. 

Olivia DeJonge plays Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin, Michael Stuhlbarg plays Michael’s lawyer David and Kathleen’s sister Candace is played by Rosemarie DeWitt in the HBO series.  The show even depicts the production of The Staircase documentary, with Vincent Vermignon playing its director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. 

The Staircase starring Sophie Turner, Odessa Young, Olivia DeJonge and Dale DeHaan

(Image credit: Sky)

Discussing taking on the role of Michael Peterson with Deadline during The Staircase‘s CTAM presentation, Colin Firth revealed that he didn’t reach out to the novelist about playing him and instead considers the show to be a distinct creation taking the story in a particular direction.

“I didn’t communicate with Michael Peterson,” he said. “I felt the way the script was structured and just the whole approach of this was its own ecosystem, so to speak. These are created characters but we all know what the source is. We all know that these characters have names of living people, but it’s very carefully calibrated to tell the story in a certain way.”

“I felt that I wanted to keep my inspiration, my motivation, and the sense of the source material, as much as possible contained within the script and the way it was written,” he added.

The Staircase documentary explained  

Although high-profile, the new The Staircase HBO show isn’t the first to depict the traumatic events of 2001 and the following years. It’s understood that whilst the eight-part series was based on the shocking true story of Michael Peterson's arrest for Kathleen's murder, it also drew inspiration from the award-winning The Staircase documentary series. 

The Staircase documentary was created by John-Xavier de Lestrade in 2004 and closely followed his trial. The Staircase documentary features everyone from family members to defense attorneys. 

After returning to film developments in the case, sequel episodes of The Staircase documentary were released in 2018. Now anyone who's found themselves inspired to learn more about the details of the Michael Peterson trial after watching The Staircase on HBO can get further insights from The Staircase documentary episodes which are available on Netflix.  

What books has Michael Peterson written?

As a novelist of several books prior to his arrest, it’s perhaps no surprise that Michael Peterson didn't put his writing days behind him. Since his release from prison, he’s gone on to write new books which recount his life as a prisoner, being on trial, and his subsequent freedom, with the proceeds from Behind the Staircase and Beyond The Staircase reportedly being donated to charity. 

Before his arrest and trial for Kathleen Peterson’s murder, Michael wrote The Immortal Dragon (1983), A Time of War (1989), and A Bitter Peace (1995), and then in 2020 he also released ATMAN, described as a novel about evil. His earlier works are understood to have been inspired by his time serving during the Vietnam War and Michael was also a columnist before his trial. 

Emma is a Senior Lifestyle Writer with six years of experience working in digital publishing. Her specialist areas including literature, the British Royal Family and knowing all there is to know about the latest TV shows on the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and every streaming service out there. When she’s not writing about the next unmissable show to add to your to-watch list or delving into royal protocol, you can find Emma cooking and watching yet more crime dramas.