Justice is a word that has lost its original meaning: the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness in the American judiciary system. A trial is so costly that only the very wealthy defendant can afford investigators, “expert” witnesses, travel expenses and a high-profile lawyer to even stand a chance to argue a viable defense. Bail alone is often not affordable to many people who languish in jail for months at a time - a terrifying and horrific place where one awaits trial in the dark pit of innuendo and suspicion.
The Staircase is a 2004 documentary originally made into an 8 episode miniseries by French Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade based on the 2001 death of Kathleen Petersen, wife of novelist Michael Peterson, whose dead body was found at the bottom of the stairs in a pool of blood with lacerations to her head, and splatters all over the floors and walls. The police soon takes her husband, Michael Peterson into custody, and as soon as he is indicted, Lestrade and his French film crew are given access to the accused, his family, the defense attorneys and the court to document the judicial process which surprisingly covers 17 years in the lives of all those involved as the series was updated in 2013 and then again in 2018 when new evidence comes to light. To this day Michael Peterson unwaveringly proclaims his innocence and does so with great eloquence asserting the belief that his wife fell down the stairs and violently hit her head bouncing off the balustrade. The “blood spatter” scientific expert witnesses create a credible case for Kathleen Peterson’s cause of death to be ruled as an accident rather than a homicide.
The bulk of the series gives us an inside view into the mechanism of preparing for a trial which will change the trajectory of your life and all the people who care about you; the trial itself and the criticality of procedural decisions made by the Judge which can alter your chances for a fair hearing; how circumstantial evidence can be twisted to fit the prosecution’s preconceived theories, and most damaging irrelevant personal secrets brought to light through one’s emails, etc. that the prosecution intentionally injects into the proceedings to prejudice the jury.
Kathleen and Michael Peterson’s marriage was by all accounts an idyllic one - though not conventional in that Michael was bisexual and had occasional trysts with men for sex - a revelation found in graphic emails. He claims that his wife “in some sense” was aware of this, but this fact shattered the illusion of the perfectly loving marriage and “shocked” many in the courtroom including the jurors. Throughout the Court dealings, Michael Peterson maintained a very loving relationship with his adopted daughters and his two sons and we observe many scenes which include playful bantering and distressingly ironic laughter. The attachment of the children to their father is very touching and the poignancy of the pain that the trial inflicts on them is heart-rending.
Over the 17 years of filming, we witness the physical deterioration of a vital man - his gait becomes unsteady, he shrinks before our eyes and his recurring, self-deprecating smile is more forced as the stress of the uncertainty of a life that has been determined by a corrupt justice system almost breaks the resolve of a thinking man who is a writer who values the delicacy of words; a man who is comforted by the consoling strains of music, and a man who in later years is mournful - his red eyes weep tears of anguish remembering the loss of the person he adored most in his world - the loss which the State attributed to his hand.