Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
It’s not too much of an exaggeration to compare “The Staircase” to “Citizen Kane” in the way it impacted its form. Modern true crime docu-series like “The Keepers,” “Making a Murderer,” and “The Jinx” owe a great debt to Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s award-winning chronicle of the fascinating case of Michael Peterson. Perhaps knowing the debt that their true crime series owe to it—as well as being aware that anyone who likes their buzz-building mysteries will fall for this one hard—Netflix has picked up the original 10-episode series (8 episodes aired on BBC/Sundance in 2005 with 2 more added in 2013) and added 3 brand-new episodes to catch viewers up on where the Peterson case is today. It’s a must-watch for anyone interested in true crime shows as it’s not only a fascinating case on its own but really the template for so much that’s on television and streaming services today.
On December 9, 2001, North Carolina resident Michael Peterson, a writer and former reporter, called 911 to report that his wife Kathleen was at the bottom of the stairs in their home, bleeding profusely. Almost immediately, suspicion fell on Peterson. Kathleen has seven lacerations on the top of her head, a number deemed too high for a fall and which led some experts to conclude that she had been assaulted, possibly even using a blow poke that the Peterson’s had been given as a gift years earlier. Michael claimed to have been outside, having had a few drinks with his wife earlier in the evening. She went in before him and fell down the stairs. How could he not hear her screaming for help? What about the wounds on her head?
And then the Peterson case gets even weirder. It’s revealed that another woman in Michael Peterson’s life was found dead at the bottom of a staircase twenty years earlier. Could he have done this twice? Or learned how to make Kathleen’s murder look like the accident he witnessed before? And then the prosecution brings in the fact that Michael Peterson was bisexual, cruising online outlets for anonymous gay sex. Did Kathleen find out about this facet of Michael’s life and that’s why he killed her?
Clearly, there’s a fascinating case at the center of “The Staircase”—one that still has chapters being written 15 years after Kathleen’s death—but the reason the series works so well is its remarkable thoroughness. Lestrade and his team were allowed access to Peterson, his defense team, and his family from shortly after his arrest, and throughout the trial. And so one gets to see how a defense is mounted in procedural detail. Every revelation and decision is carefully chronicled in the kind of detail you don’t get from most true crime series. For example, you’ll see long discussions about burden of proof and value of expert testimony that you don’t get from most series. There’s a fascinating discussion after the prosecution closes about whether or not to mount a defense at all if one believes the case hasn’t been proven. “The Staircase” is so thorough that it allows you to appreciate other true crime shows and mini-series more completely as you’ll have greater insight into how a major murder trial like this unfolds from the focus groups to determine different defense strategies to the divides that form within the family as to Michael’s guilt or innocence.
Perhaps “Hoop Dreams” is the better comparison for “The Staircase” in that both films go into levels of detail and involve hours of footage in ways that others within their genre skip over. And like “Hoop Dreams,” we get to know Michael, his daughters, and the team of attorneys behind him. It becomes about more than just whether or not Michael Peterson did it—don’t be surprised if you’re still not 100% sure when the series is over and don’t get started if you can’t handle that lack of closure. For me, that uncertainty is part of the brilliance of “The Staircase” in that it further exemplifies the fact that most cases involve decisions and judgments that don’t directly reflect guilt or innocence. It can be more about a man’s hidden sexuality or dark past than what happened that night. It can be about a strategy of the defense or a brilliant move by the prosecution, or just that the jury finds an attorney smug. Big cases like Peterson’s involve so many people working at the top of their games, and yet only one of them will ever know for sure exactly what happened that night at the bottom of the stairs.
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