Evidence explains how a crime scene unfolds, yet the evidence presented in The Staircase only inspires fiercer debates over who, if anyone, is truly guilty of a crime. A re-release of the famous true crime drama, Netflix's The Staircase revisits the events surrounding the 2001 alleged murder of Kathleen Peterson. In one of the longest court trials in North Carolina history, celebrated author and military man Michael Peterson stood accused of the murder of his wife Kathleen, whom he claimed accidentally fell to her death. As the murder trial of Kathleen Peterson unfolded, troves of sensationalistic evidence surfaced including illicit affairs, a hidden past, and inexplicable amounts of blood.
Sifting through the nearly two-year-long trial, these key pieces of evidence determined the trajectory of the trial and its aftermath. These things you might have missed in The Staircase fail to explain what happened to Kathleen, but they do reveal how the trial went from an investigation to a media sensation.
The prosecution tries its best to convince the jury that no explanation exists for the lacerations on Kathleen Peterson's head, other than her being bludgeoned with a blunt object. However, defense counters with some very important evidence, or rather, lack thereof. They argue that not only was no murder weapon found, there were no castoff blood spatters on the ceiling or opposite walls.
They refer back to the tight quarters within the hallway where no splatters turn up, nor damage to the walls from a weapon being swung repeatedly. A defense blood spatter expert noted, "It would be very hard to create the energy level . . . in such a small place."
Castoff spatters generally occur in an arcing pattern, created by drops of blood flying off a weapon swung repeatedly during a beating like the one prosecution implied. The defense implies that it would be very unlikely that there could be a beating in that space without castoff spatters.
Perhaps the most pivotal point in the initial trial happens when, or at least immediately after, the prosecution calls for the exhumation of Elizabeth Ratliff.
A former family friend, Ratliff lived stationed abroad in Germany in the '80s alongside other families like the Petersons. A widow, Elizabeth raised two daughters and her family grew close with the Petersons. At least, until tragedy struck.
The prosecution shockingly reveals to the jury that, at age 43, Ratliff turned up dead at the bottom of her stairs in 1985, some 16 years earlier. Unlike Kathleen Peterson's fall, Ratliff's showed signs of blood spatter on the walls. The original autopsy said she suffered a brain hemorrhage and fell, but after the exhumation, a new cause of death was issued: homicide.
The same medical examiner who performed Kathleen's autopsy determined Ratliff died of "blunt force trauma to the head," caused by a "homicidal attack." Reports also placed Michael Peterson as one of the last people to see Ratliff the evening she died. Peterson actually adopted her two children after she passed away, and they supported him throughout the trial, despite the fact their two mother figures perished in nearly identical ways, 16 years apart.
When the autopsy report is released, the discovery of red neurons delivers a sizable blow to Michael Peterson's defense.
According to the chief medical examiner, Deborah L. Radisch, red neurons in a person's brain tissue reveal that the person went at least two hours with little oxygen. In Radisch's words: "the conclusion is she was attacked, [or] she was beaten, but then she lived for a long enough period of time for these red neurons to develop by the time she died."
Hence, this autopsy report contradicts Peterson's story that he found her 45 minutes after she left him sitting by the pool. In order for red neurons to form, Kathleen would have needed to be laying injured for at least two hours; in other words, she spent longer at the bottom of those steps than just 45 minutes.
The medical examiner determines the cause of death to be homicide, largely due to the seven large lacerations found on the back of Kathleen's skull. During the autopsy, the examiner shaves Kathleen's head, revealing the brutal wounds decorating her head. Haphazard and angry, the injuries look nothing like the type of blows you'd expect from a fall.
The chief medical examiner, Dr. John Butts states during his testimony, "You don’t just get lots and lots of lacerations across the back top of the head [from a fall]."