Is The Staircase based on a true story?

Chris Tilly
toni-collette-colin-firth-in-the-staircase
HBO

The Staircase is a true-crime drama that premiered on HBO Max in May 2022. But is the murder at the heart of the show real, and if so, is The Staircase based on a true story?

The Staircase is an eight-episode series that details the death of Kathleen Peterson, the arrest and trial of her husband Michael Peterson for her alleged murder, and the way in which those twin events tore the lives of their children apart.

Toni Collette plays Kathleen Peterson in the show, while Colin Firth is Michael Peterson. His lawyer David Rudolph is brought to life by Michael Stuhlbarg, while their children are played by the likes of Dane DeHaan, Sophie Turner, and Patrick Schwarzenegger.

Created by Antonio Campos, the critically-acclaimed show debuted on HBO Max on May 5, 2022, in the US, while in the UK, The Staircase aired on Sky Atlantic.

Is The Staircase a true story?

Yes, The Staircase is a true story. Though the details of the case in question have been hotly contested, meaning this version of events have been doubted and critizised by those involved.

What isn’t in doubt is that Kathleen Peterson tragically died late one night at the bottom of the stairs in her house. But how she got there is the question being asked by the series, and at the trial on which it is based.

Investigators believed Kathleen’s injuries weren’t consistent with an accident. While police claimed that Michael bludgeoned her to death with a blow poke that was missing from their home, and charged him with first-degree murder. They believed Kathleen discovered that Michael was bisexual and having affairs with men behind her back, with the murder occurring during that argument.

Michael’s defense team countered with the fact that she’d known about his sexuality and extra-marital activities and had no issue with them. They claimed because Michael was outside by their pool, he couldn’t hear Kathleen’s cries, and called the police as soon as he found her.

The plot thickened when it came to light that a friend of Michael’s had also died at the bottom of some stairs when he lived in Germany. Police and the US military deemed the death to be accidental, but it became a major element of the case against Michael, and fed the media frenzy that surrounded the trial.

Was Michael Peterson found guilty of Kathleen Peterson’s murder?

HBO
Colin Firth as Michael Peterson and Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson in The Staircase.

Yes, Michael Peterson was found guilty of his wife’s murder. In 2003, he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility for parole.

The story doesn’t end there however, as in 2011 a judge found that a witness had lied under oath during the trial. Then in 2017, Michael Peterson entered an “Alford Plea” – a guilty plea in which the defendant does not admit to the criminal act and asserts their innocence.

So by then accepting a charge of voluntary manslaughter, Peterson was re-sentenced to time served, and walked free.

Is The Staircase based on a documentary?

Yes, The Staircase is based on a documentary. One that was also known as Death on the Staircase.

Directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, work began on the series soon after Michael Peterson’s indictment, with the documentarians spending time with Peterson, his family, and his legal team.

The doc first aired in 2004, while new episodes were shot with the Peterson family in 2012 following developments in the case. It was then updated further following Michael’s release. All 13 episodes of The Staircase documentary are now streaming on Netflix.

What has Michael Peterson said about the HBO version of The Staircase?

HBO
Colin Firth facing the press as Michael Peterson in The Staircase.

Michael Peterson has been very critical of dramatized version of his story, slamming the show for “egrerious fabrications.”

In an email sent to Variety, Peterson said there are “distortions of the truth in the HBO series well beyond what may be considered artistic license.”

He also criticized de Lestrade for selling footage of his family to the filmmakers. “We didn’t sell our story to Campos – were never even consulted or informed that Jean had done this,” Peterson told Variety.

“We are the ones who were betrayed, falsely depicted as fighting among ourselves (which NEVER happened), and with made-up storylines that denigrate all of us in the eyes of millions.”

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