Raleigh, N.C. — Eighteen months after a plea deal resolved Mike Peterson’s long-running Durham murder case, it lives on in pop culture thanks to the Netflix series “The Staircase.”
The documentary was initially produced during Peterson’s 2003 murder trial, but Netflix arranged for it to be updated and released it this summer as a 13-episode series.
Defense attorney David Rudolf, who represented Peterson throughout the 15-plus-year case, said the series has opened many people’s eyes to problems with the justice system.
“We’ve had really good feedback on the problems with the criminal justice system, as this series really illustrates,” Rudolf said recently in an interview with WRAL News. “That was really part of my purpose in agreeing to do this, was so that people would understand what role criminal defense lawyers play and how the system really works – and how sometimes the system doesn’t work.”
Kathleen Peterson was found in a pool of blood at the bottom of a staircase in the couple’s Durham mansion on Dec. 9, 2001, and police quickly focused their investigation on her husband, a novelist and one-time Durham mayoral candidate.
Two years later, Mike Peterson was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison following a lengthy and lurid trial that included testimony from a male prostitute and the exhumation of the body of a female friend of Mike Peterson’s who similarly was found dead at the foot of some stairs years earlier.
“Nobody expected a guilty verdict,” Rudolf said. “People thought it might have been a hung jury.”
One of the key elements of the prosecution’s case was Duane Deaver, a blood analyst at the State Crime Lab, who told jurors that the blood spatter on the walls of the staircase where Kathleen Peterson was found proved she was beaten to death.
“I think a lot of people, they looked at the blood, and that was it for them,” Rudolf said. “What people don’t understand is how heavily scalp wounds bleed and how they spurt and how they can cover walls.
“The reality is that the amount of blood was emotionally wrenching, but it really didn’t prove anything other than the fact that she had really deep scalp wounds.”
Deaver’s testimony also was key to Mike Peterson’s conviction being overturned in 2011, when Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson ruled that the analyst had lied to the jury about his expertise and overstated the accuracy of his tests. Hudson ordered that Peterson get a new trial.
Rudolf said prosecutors didn’t vet Deaver’s work enough before putting it before the jury.
“It’s hard for me to believe that those prosecutors didn’t look at his experiments and say to themselves, ‘This is really garbage,'” he said. “That’s disturbing to me that prosecutors who are there to try to bring truth would allow someone like Deaver to testify the way he did.”
Deaver lost his job in 2011 after an outside review of the State Crime Lab found he had misstated or falsely reported blood evidence in several criminal cases.
“The problems that this case illustrated in the system are not just from this case. These problems have existed and have haunted me for decades,” Rudolf said.
Law enforcement and prosecutors too often exhibit tunnel vision in cases, focusing on one theory of how a crime occurred and ignoring facts that don’t fit that narrative, Rudolf said. After a conviction, he added, they have a vested interest in ensuring the verdict is upheld.
“Prosecutors and police officers – and defense lawyers – need to be educated about tunnel vision and need to do better job of not just saying, ‘This is what I think happened,’ but also considering the alternatives and saying, ‘OK, if I’m wrong about this, what does this evidence mean?'” he said.
After years awaiting a retrial, Mike Peterson took an Alford plea in February 2017 to a charge of voluntary manslaughter. Under an Alford plea, a defendant can maintain his or her innocence while acknowledging prosecutors have enough evidence for a conviction.
As part of the plea deal, he was able to go free since he had already spent more time behind bars than his sentence called for.
Still, Rudolf continues to believe that Mike Peterson was wrongly convicted.
“It never made sense to me,” he said. “Do I know what happened? I don’t know what happened. What I know for sure is that there was not proof beyond a reasonable doubt in this case. There was never proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and Mike Peterson never should have been convicted.”
But he does have his own idea of how Kathleen Peterson died: the widely ridiculed “owl theory.”
Rudolf speculated that she was putting tiny reindeer out in the yard as Christmas ornaments that night and was attacked by an owl that thought the reindeer were prey.
“She would have had to literally have ripped the talons out of her scalp. I think she was then bleeding profusely,” he said, noting investigators found a blood trail from the front yard into the house and on the front door.
“I think she goes in. She’s running upstairs. She’s bleeding. I think she does fall. I think she knocks herself out,” he said. “She bleeds out for a long time. She gets up. She tries to stand up again. She falls again, and she bleeds out.”
A single feather was found on Kathleen Peterson. It has never been tested, so it’s unclear where it came from.
“The scenario that makes the most sense to me, in hindsight, is that an owl did, in fact, hit her head outside,” Rudolf concluded. “Then she ran inside and bled to death in that stairway.”