‘The Staircase’ Isn’t A Whodunnit
Netflix’s new documentary series isn’t new or theirs; it was made by a man with the Frenchest name in the world, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, over many years and has been screened in parts before on the BBC and in France. ItÂ has also been the subject of numerous true-crime TV shows, books and podcasts.
The barest bones; in 2001 novelist Michael Peterson’s wife died after apparently falling down the stairs at their home. The medical examiner decided that she had been beaten with a weapon called a blow poke (a contraption you blow through to stoke a fire), which led to Peterson becoming the suspect in a murder investigation.
The trial was disastrous for many reasons; a key expert lied on the stand to support the police case, there was no ‘murder weapon’, the victim’s family prejudiced the case. Then there’s theÂ Alford plea â€“ a topsy-turvey American deal that allows someone to protest their innocence while pleading guilty.
It’s fairly likely that at the end of the first episode you’ll have made up your mind about the defendant, although questions remain about the circumstances. But then sudden death, by its nature, arrives in media resÂ and is rarely tidy. The series has been made rather like the innovative documentary series Seven Up, catching up with the participants every few years, the reason being that the wheels of US justice, at least in Durham County, grind exceedingly slow. What can be going on in that town to create so many tortuous delays and reversals?
At one point the case became timeless Americana, asÂ defence lawyer David Rudolph, sharp, Jewish, compassionate, riles a jury suspicious of city slicker ways. We might have been seeing the Scotsboro case, or the Leo Frank murder trial.
Clearly true-crime series have come a long way since this drama started, but the slow-build approach here works wonders. You feel Rudolph’s frustration in Episode 3 when simply getting one thing right proves almost impossible. This is a place where justice plays out like a surreal cross between worlds created by Victor Hugo, Franz Kafka and Charles Dickens, with a cast slowly driven to obsession by an unsolvable conundrum.
Why is it unsolveable? Because the facts have a neat little hole in them that no-one can fill. In my head wasÂ Lex Parsimoniae; the idea that the simplest solution is the correct one. But by the time you get to the end of the thirteen hour watch the ground has been so muddied that it has turned people against each other and driven some mad with grief and frustration. I even ended up feeling sorry for Candace Peterson, the vituperative sister of the deceased. Everyone gets hurt.
The series is a powerful argument for inadmissible evidence, and makes me realise just how in bed the press are with the legal system in the US. There are many good and decent characters to root for and no real villains as far as I can see, just people seeing answers from a framework that doesn’t support them. Depressing but essential viewing.
NB If you do watch to the end, there’s been a further development still. Look up ‘Owl defence’ in the context of the case.