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The hottest show on HBO right now is The Staircase – the not quite totally true story of a murder in North Carolina in 2001.
If the title sounds familiar it’s because the case was the subject of an award-winning documentary. A French film crew started following everyone involved in the case – on both sides – very early on; the coverage was extensive and almost surreal in its depth.
The result was a thirteen-episode documentary also called The Staircase. Like me, many of you may remember the case, having – in many cases unwillingly, it was that pervasive – seen it covered every day on local TV here in North Carolina.
Here’s a recap:
A writer, Michael Peterson, called 911 and said he found his wife, Kathleen, lying at the bottom of a staircase, barely breathing. He screamed that she was bleeding profusely but breathing.
She died before the ambulance arrived. He told the paramedics and police she fell, the police claimed he bludgeoned her to death.
He was arrested, charged with murder, hired an all-star defense team, went to trial, was convicted, appealed eight years later, won the appeal, was released from prison, cut a deal with the prosecutor, and stayed home for good.
There’s a lot more to it, not the least of which were lies and outright fraud by the North Carolina crime lab.
The HBO show is a fictionalized account (with great acting). It closely follows the documentary but with a few significant changes. If you’re watching the HBO version and missed the documentary some of this may look different because the HBO production changed the timelines.
Michael Peterson hired an excellent criminal defense attorney with years of experience. A guy who was a former federal defender, taught at the University of North Carolina School of Law, opened his own firm, and had been practicing as a defense attorney for twenty years at the time of the Peterson case.
Peterson was referred to him by several of his friends that were also attorneys. Peterson chose a great lawyer.
Then he sabotaged everything.
After a few months of investigation his defense team was shocked to discover – while watching the local news – that their client had had a series of one-night stands and casual sexual encounters with men for years that his wife may or may not have known about.
The existence of the emails was motive for the prosecution, another thing to explain for the defense. It was bad and unnecessary./p>
On the eve of trial, Peterman’s attorneys were watching the same local news station when a special news bulletin informed the world and them simultaneously that years earlier, when Peterson was living in Germany, he found his next-door neighbor dead … at the bottom of a staircase.
The German authorities called the death ‘natural’ but talk about bad optics.
Peterson’s failure to disclose this little nugget was devastating - it came out of nowhere just when the defense thought they had everything set for their case.
In my video I talk about what to look for in a defense attorney. I think it’s good, solid advice but it’s worthless when the client doesn’t tell them everything.
A rule of thumb is that surprises are bad after the first consultation; terrible during the investigation; beyond horrific on the eve of trial.
You’re looking for the best in a criminal defense attorney – as you should; tell them what they need to know to mount that defense.