The Staircase might be a true-crime drama but that likely won’t stop some viewers from wondering more about the case that saw Michael Peterson face a traumatic trial for his wife’s murder.
Like The Dropout true story and Apple TV’s WeCrashed, new HBO show, The Staircase, takes viewers back in time to delve into the dark details of a shocking real-life event. Set in the early 2000s in North Carolina, the show depicts the events surrounding the discovery of Kathleen Peterson’s body at the bottom of a staircase in her home by her husband. Arrested and put on trial, novelist Michael Peterson has always protested his innocence and his eventual conviction was later overturned.
Now The Staircase’s portrayal of this traumatic time might have got some wondering what really happened to Kathleen. There were three main theories that many people believed, including the eventual ruling, and the Owl Theory was especially bizarre…
The Staircase—did he do it?
Fans of other true crime shows, from Manhunt The Night Stalker to Code of a Killer, might well be wondering how much of the events shown so far in The Staircase happened and whether Michael Peterson did kill his wife Kathleen Peterson. And despite the jury not being convinced when they delivered their initial verdict, Michael was judged to be innocent of murder.
As far as the original jury for his trial was concerned, the novelist was responsible as they found him guilty of the crime in 2003. Michael was sentenced to life without parole despite maintaining he was innocent and despite the fireplace tool known as a Blow Poke which was presented as a possible murder weapon being found, blood-free, in the garage.
However, after spending many years in prison for Kathleen’s murder, the Guilty verdict against the writer was later overturned. According to the RadioTimes (opens in new tab), a retrial was ordered in 2011, a decade after Kathleen’s death, after it was found that a blood-spatter analyst at the original trial could’ve misled the jury with their testimony.
Michael then submitted an Alford Plea to the courts in 2017 to reduce his murder charge to one of voluntary manslaughter. This plea means that a defendant can continue to declare their innocence whilst accepting that there was sufficient evidence against them to provide a conviction.
Michael’s plea was successful and he was sentenced to time already served and released. Free and reportedly living back in Durham, North Carolina, Michael Peterson has continued to assert his innocence to this day and it’s said that his two children, Todd and Clayton Peterson, from his first marriage, and his adopted daughters Martha and Margaret Ratliff, believe and support their father.
The Staircase alternative theory one: he did it
Although Michael Peterson’s Guilty verdict was overturned and his Alford Plea was successful, some reportedly still aren’t quite convinced that he didn’t do it. Kathleen Peterson’s daughter from a previous relationship, Caitlin Atwater, opened up to IndyWeek (opens in new tab) in 2017 about her perception of what happened to her late mother given the original verdict.
“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."
Caitlin continued, "I knew what happened to my mom. 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.”
Meanwhile, Kathleen’s sister Candace Zamperini is also understood to have sided with the prosecution rather than her brother-in-law. She also reportedly took the stand testifying for the prosecution in Michael’s original trial.
Despite the eventual manslaughter ruling, there were also several questions raised surrounding Michael’s explanation for what happened the night Kathleen died. Whilst it’s claimed that Michael suggested his wife had been drinking and could’ve fallen, according to RadioTimes (opens in new tab) it was found at the time that her blood alcohol level was low enough to pass a breathalyzer test, leading it to be argued it possibly wasn’t high enough to lead to such a serious accident.
Michael also supposedly told 911 operators that Kathleen was still breathing when he found her. But the medical examiner had reportedly come to the conclusion that the dried blood on her head lacerations meant she’d been lying there for some time and that she’d been bludgeoned to death. The prosecution also brought up how Martha and Margaret Ratliff’s mother Elizabeth, a friend of Michael, had been found dead at the bottom of a staircase too.
It is perhaps these puzzling details that could’ve potentially led Caitlin and Candace to remain convinced of Michael Peterson’s guilt despite the eventual judgment.
The Staircase alternative theory two: the Owl Theory
Though many The Staircase viewers who’ve looked into the real-life case might well be torn between the original verdict and the subsequent manslaughter ruling, there was another prominent theory that circulated. This so-called Owl Theory presents the idea that Kathleen Peterson was killed, but not by her husband Michael.
It was reportedly first conceived of by a lawyer who also happened to be their neighbor, Larry Pollard, but he only presented the idea at a very late stage. As reported by Esquire (opens in new tab), Larry revealed his idea via YouTube videos and suggested that Kathleen could’ve been attacked either outside or inside her home by barred owls. These are said to be common in the part of North Carolina where the Petersons lived.
Larry put forward the theory that either Kathleen was attacked by one outside and attempted to get away by walking inside and collapsing on the stairs or that one of these owls could’ve got inside the Petersons’ home. Startled by Kathleen, he hypothesized that the owl could’ve begun attacking her inside, leading to her falling down the stairs.
Admittedly the Owl Theory initially sounds incredibly out there but it seems there was some evidence that could be seen to work with it. When evidence was re-examined, Kathleen was said to have had a microscopic feather and a small sliver of wood in a clump of hair she held in her hand. It was said that this could have happened as a result of Kathleen tearing at her own hair to try and remove the owl.
The lacerations to her scalp were also suggested to be similar to the shape of the owl’s talons and three expert witnesses backed up the idea that the Owl Theory is possible in three affidavits submitted to the court.
According to the publication, David Rudolf, the lead defense attorney for Michael Peterson, alleged to Vulture (opens in new tab) that it’s a theory with “credibility”.
"When you step back and really start getting familiar with the fact that there have been literally scores if not hundreds of documented instances of owls attacking the heads of people… and you look at the wounds and you compare them with the talons of an owl, it starts having some real credibility,” he said.
This Owl Theory does pose several rather major questions of its own, though, including how Michael didn’t notice or hear any evidence of an owl and why the owl and more feathers weren’t found. Ultimately, the theory wasn’t presented in court as David Rudolf apparently only became aware of the theory when there was no time left to put it forward.
It’s not known whether HBO’s The Staircase will delve into the Owl Theory in later episodes. Though given the way the show has cast the role of Larry Pollard, it’s of course possible that the lawyer’s dramatized counterpart could similarly suggest it in the show as one of the main alternative theories surrounding the case.
Either way, the Owl Theory is still one of the strangest theories surrounding The Staircase’s Kathleen Peterson’s death. And although Michael Peterson’s verdict may have been changed, with so many shocking and confusing details surrounding the case they'll likely be some The Staircase viewers wondering—did he do it?
As the HBO show continues there's plenty of time for fans to form their own theories based on the real-life evidence in this devastating case.
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.
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