Is The Staircase a true story? Where is Michael Peterson now - and events behind 2022 Sky Atlantic series

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What’s the real story behind the new Colin Firth and Toni Collette drama?

On 5 May, Sky and NOW TV premiered The Staircase, a new crime drama about a novelist suspected of murdering his wife, and the subsequent trial that ensued.

It stars Colin Firth as novelist Michael Peterson, and Toni Collette as his wife, Kathleen.

But is it a true story?

Here is everything you need to know about it.

Is The Staircase a true story?

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The new drama is actually based on Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s true crime docuseries of the same name.

Also known as ‘Death on the Staircase’ in the UK, eight 45-minute episodes of the documentary were aired in 2004, assembled from more than 600 hours of footage and focusing on the crime itself.

A follow-up was released in 2012 with hindsight on the murder and its ramifications, and documented Peterson’s family and legal team as they argued for a retrial.

Antonio Campos - the new series’ creator - began crafting an adaption of the docuseries over 10 years ago as a passion project.

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“This has been a project I have been working on in one way or another since 2008,” he said. “It’s been a long and winding road, but well worth the wait... to dramatise such a complex true-life story.”

The series has garnered positive reviews, and has been hailed as one of the only a few documentary dramatisations that enhances rather than detracts from the source material.

Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson & Colin Firth as Michael Peterson in The Staircase (Credit: HBO)Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson & Colin Firth as Michael Peterson in The Staircase (Credit: HBO)
Toni Collette as Kathleen Peterson & Colin Firth as Michael Peterson in The Staircase (Credit: HBO) | HBO

What really happened?

Michael Peterson was accused of murdering his wife in December 2001.

Authorities argued that Kathleen’s injuries were consistent with blunt force damage caused by bludgeoning, but Peterson claimed his wife had fallen down the stairs.

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He was convicted of her murder in 2003 and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

Peterson first dialled 911 after claiming to find his wife Kathleen unresponsive in their North Carolina home, and feared she had fallen down "fifteen, twenty, I don’t know" stairs.

He later stated that he was outside by the pool and returned to discover Kathleen at the bottom of the steps, claiming she had fallen after drinking alcohol and taking Valium.

The case still stirs debate, and has even thrown up bizarre alternative theories.

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They include the ‘Owl Theory’ that suggests Kathleen was attacked by an owl outside the house, fell after rushing inside, and was knocked unconscious after hitting her head on the first stair.

(An attorney who was not involved in the case but had been following it approached police after reading the evidence list and seeing that a "feather" was included.)

Is Peterson still in prison?

(Photo: HBO)(Photo: HBO)
(Photo: HBO) | HBO

Peterson was freed on $300,000 bail from North Carolina’s Durham County jail in December 2011, and was placed under house arrest with a tracking anklet.

His release came after a judge ordered a new trial after it was discovered that one of the key witnesses against Peterson had given "deliberately false" testimony.

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A court also ruled that prosecutors had improperly obtained computer files showing Peterson’s interest with gay pornography and his email correspondence with a male escort in order to establish a motive for Kathleen’s murder.

Peterson’s bond restrictions were relaxed in 2014.

In 2017, entered an Alford plea (a guilty plea entered because sufficient evidence exists to convict the defendant, but the defendant maintains innocence) to the voluntary manslaughter of Kathleen.

He was given a maximum term of 86 months in prison, with credit for time served.

Because Peterson he had already served more than the term behind he bars, he did not face additional prison time.

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Where is he now?

Peterson still wears his wedding ring, and claimed at the time of his release that he had tried not to be bitter about the years he had spent fighting the case.

He said he takes each day as it comes, confident that he had done nothing wrong: "I didn’t hurt Kathleen. I didn’t kill her. It just didn’t happen," he said at the time.

Kathleen Peterson’s two sisters delivered searing victim statements during the final hearing, releasing years of pent-up rage.

“It’s wrong that, after a jury sentenced him to life in prison for the murder of his wife, he gets to be a free man while Kathleen lies in her grave,” Lori Campbell said. “Closure is for a door, not for my murdered sister.”

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Candace Zamperini said she didn’t care if Peterson had filed an Alford plea, because he’s guilty to her, her family, and the rest of the world.

“Alford, schmalford. It means nothing,” she said at the 2017 hearing. “Michael Peterson, you are pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. You will be treated as guilty for murdering my sister Kathleen, and you will be a convicted felon forever.”

How can I watch it?

The Staircase began on Thursday 5 May, with Sky Atlantic premiering a double bill of episodes.

Further episodes of the eight-part series will air on a weekly basis every Thursday, and will also be accessible on NOW TV.

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