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Thanks to several fictional and so-called “reality” television series, the public is aware of advances in forensic science, and perhaps has been misled into believing all “expert” courtroom evidence is irrefutable. While it’s near impossible to contradict DNA findings, statements about other aspects of a case — blood spatter, for instance — may be based on interpretation, and be open to dispute.

For many of us couch potatoes, this fact may be much on our minds these days, thanks to Netflix, which tacked on a few episodes to an interminable propaganda piece originally presented in 2004 as an eight-part series by the Sundance Channel. Thus the thirteen-part “The Staircase” offered by Netflix this summer is even more horribly bloated.

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s project deals with the infamous 2001 death of Kathleen Peterson in Durham, North Carolina, that led to the murder conviction of her second husband, writer Michael Peterson. I don’t think of “The Staircase” as a documentary so much as an error in judgment. De Lestrade reportedly intended to make a two-hour film, but was outwitted by an accused murderer and his defense team, who, during one especially uncomfortable scene, indicate, albeit in a light-hearted way, that they will dictate the content of the finished product.

That Peterson was found guilty in the 2002 trial obviously shocked everyone connected with the project, which became an eight-episode series to appeal to a growing number of streamers.

The murder conviction was overturned several years later, and a new trial ordered, but Peterson decided to plead guilty to manslaughter, a strategic move, not an admission that he, in fact, had killed his wife. The plea resulted in a sentence shorter than the time he had already served, and he became a free man.

IN ANY CASE, events since 2002 should have dictated a tight re-editing of “The Staircase,” but unless you fast-forward through each episode, you will waste six hours of real time on what could be told in thirty minutes. The program is mostly Peterson, his brother, and his lawyers being smug. That may have been acceptable fourteen years ago, but today those eight episodes are a cure for insomnia.

It was testimony by Duane Deaver, blood spatter analyst for the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, that finally led to a successful appeal. Deaver lost his job for lying about evidence in another case. Peterson’s lawyer swept in with experts who claimed Deaver’s testimony about the cause of Kathleen Peterson’s death was incompetent or misleading. Deaver also had grossly exaggerated his training and experience.

He wasn’t the only liar in the case. Michael Peterson’s lies may have played a part in his conviction. Peterson had served with the Army in Vietnam, and was a captain when he was discharged in 1971. About twenty-five years later, while living in Durham, the author and part-time newspaper columnist set out to become mayor, and claimed he’d won two Purple Hearts during the war in Vietnam. Later he admitted his “combat injuries” resulted from a Jeep accident in Japan where he was in the military police. He sometimes wrote purple prose, but had no Purple Heart.

As for Kathleen Hunt Atwater, she married Peterson in 1997. There are several theories about her death four years later, and it’s easy to dismiss all of them. Like many crimes to which the only witness is the person accused, Kathleen Peterson’s death is impossible to recreate with any certainty. Peterson, his lawyers, and the filmmakers had good reason to expect an acquittal — until prosecutors learned the defendant was at least tangentially involved in a similar death seventeen years earlier in Germany, when he was the last person to see his good friend Elizabeth Ratliff alive before she died at the bottom of a stairway. (Peterson claims the woman had complained of severe headaches for several days; he blames her death on a brain hemorrhage which caused her to collapse on the stairs.)

But since most of us have been schooled by film and television police and private detectives, we know there is no such thing as coincidence. That the jury should have been told about Mrs. Ratliff’s death is open to debate, though I believe it was relevant to the Peterson case, though it may well have prejudiced the jury.

SEVERAL REVIEWS of “The Staircase” read like Netflix publicity releases, claiming, without substantiating numbers, that people love the show, which is termed “must-see” television. After all, it was created by a man who won an Academy Award in 2001 for “Murder on a Sunday Morning,” about a 15-year-old African-American wrongfully accused of a Jacksonville, Florida, murder. (I do not place much stock in Oscars and Emmys. It has been that way since I was a teenager, and “The Greatest Show on Earth” won an Academy Award for best picture. As if.)

While presenting the case almost entirely through the eyes of Peterson and his defense lawyers, de Lestrade did include, in the final episode, a wonderful courtroom tirade by Kathleen Peterson’s sister, Candace Zamperini, who ripped into Peterson, defense attorney David Rudolf. and the filmmaker. Mrs. Zamperini’s remarks are not only the best part of this overinflated series, but offer the best review. “The Staircase” tells less than half of the whole story, and is a stale package of self-serving blah-blah-blah.

Candace Zamperini had her say about defense attorney David Rudolf (center) and her brother-in-law, Michael Peterson (seated next to Rudolf).

There’s this disturbing fact about “The Staircase”: It was edited by Sophie Brunet, who fell in love with Michael Peterson during the filming. De Lestrade claims this did not effect Ms. Brunet’s work, but I find that claim ridiculous, based the number of times we’re given loving, lingering looks at Peterson’s face when things aren’t quite going his way. Poor Michael.

One has to question the taste — and the sanity — of a woman who falls in love with an admitted bisexual who, while married, went online to look for male lovers. His defense of his behavior is even more convoluted than Bill Clinton’s explanation of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Peterson claims that having sex with a man does not constitute a relationship, and since — by his definition — he had no extramarital relationships, he was never unfaithful to Kathleen. (The program does a poor job of exploring whether she knew of her husband’s sexual proclivity.)

De Lestrade and Netflix virtually ignore Kathleen Peterson, the real victim in the case, apparently a remarkable woman who was an engineer, business executive, and philanthropist, who brought a lot of wealth — and a daughter by a prior marriage — to her relationship with Michael Peterson. That daughter, Caitlin Atwater, and Kathleen’s two sisters, are convinced Michael Peterson is a murderer, but they, too, are seldom seen in “The Staircase.” It’s not enough to excuse this on grounds they did not cooperate with the filmmaker. When Netflix stepped in, this one-sided film should have become part of a larger, more balanced presentation that explored the many questions that linger over Mrs. Peterson’s death.

Thus “The Staircase” cannot tell us how Kathleen Peterson died, or if Michael Peterson was responsible.

However, Candace Zamperini made an excellent point: Whatever his reasons for pleading guilty to a manslaughter charge, Michael Peterson is now on record as a convicted killer. This was not the justice she sought, but Mrs. Zamperini received some satisfaction, though she will remain the most outspoken critic of “The Staircase.”
OH, WAIT, I nearly forgot the owl theory. If the program mentioned it, I was either napping or zapping.

Years after Mrs. Peterson’s death, a neighbor advanced the idea the unfortunate woman had been attacked by an owl on her way from the swimming pool to the house. According to this theory, an owl inflicted the wounds on Mrs. Peterson’s head. Apparently owl attacks aren’t uncommon in that part of North Carolina.

The neighbor suggested the owl attack weakened the woman, causing her to fall on the stairs minutes later. I don’t think that would result in something that jibes with any blood spatter theory offered in the trial or during the appeal. The defense expert, Dr. Henry Lee of Connecticut, made a big issue out of Mrs. Peterson coughing up blood, which may have accounted for splatter, but didn’t explain how the fall left her with so much blood in her mouth, or how she happened to be facing the wall. If I had been on the jury, I wouldn’t have believed him, either.

Anyway, it’s highly unlikely Michael Peterson could have missed seeing an owl on his wife’s head. He certainly would have used it to his advantage, and mentioned it to the police when they arrived at his home.

We’ll never know what really happened that night, but I am certain of one thing: It will never be worth sitting through every excruciating, self-serving minute of “The Staircase.” One critic called it a study in arrogance, but you could sum it up in one word: pointless.
 

An echo of 1933's Lamson case

The Kathleen Peterson case is far from the only one in which authorities had to decide whether death was accidental or the result of murder.

One I found eerily similar was a case I read about a few years ago while researching events from 1933, which may have been the newsiest year in history. (The United States was deep into a Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated, Adolf Hitler came to power, Prohibition ended, bank robbers became folk heroes, there were labor strikes galore, and bizarre murders were commonplace.)

On Memorial Day, 1933, Mrs. Allene Thorpe Lamson, 28, was found by her husband in the bathroom of their cottage on the Stanford campus, near the home of former President Herbert Hoover. Mrs. Lamson’s skull had been crushed, perhaps by a heavy club or pipe. Police arrested her husband, David, sales manager of the Stanford Press. His lawyers argued the woman had fallen and struck her head on the sink ... or perhaps was beaten to death by an intruder. Lamson claimed he was working in the back yard when her death occurred.

However, Lamson so disturbed the death scene that police were unable to determine for sure where in the bathroom Mrs. Lamson was when she died. There was blood everywhere. Lamson explained away the blood on his shirt by saying he cradled her head.

Like the Peterson case, there was dispute over the number of wounds on Mrs. Lamson’s head, and how she received them. Lamson’s attorney claimed there was only one wound; police said she’d been struck four times.

With Mrs. Peterson, there were several cuts on the top and back of her head, but no significant damage to her skull. The defense offered a rather convoluted — and, I thought, highly unlikely — theory that Mrs. Peterson fell on her way up the stairs, and her head then ricocheted off the walls like a pinball.

To me, the prosecution’s explanation was equally weird, claiming the murder weapon was a blow hole — a long pipe used to stoke fires. I found it interesting that members of the jury thought Peterson had killed his wife with an unspecified different weapon. And if Peterson did kill his wife, he had plenty of time to discard the weapon and stage the scene before calling police. To my knowledge, no one knows for sure where Mrs. Peterson fell, or was beaten, which calls into question all the “expert” testimony about blood spatter, which would vary depending on the position of the woman’s head.

THIS PART of the trial — call it “My Expert is Better Than Your Expert” — was much in evidence during the 1933 Lamson trial. It prompted an amusing report by Hearst columnist Winifred Black, who, at the age of 70 was nearing the end of her long career as one of the journalism's best-known "sob sisters." Ms. Black was clearly annoyed by the tactics and performances of attorneys and witnesses for both sides, but was especially peeved at the "experts."

Here is part of what she wrote:

“Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves.

“Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe.

“All mimsy were ye borogoves.

“And ye mome raths outgrabe.

“Don’t worry, mister telegraph operator, spell it just as it’s written.

“Think back over your ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and you’ll know exactly what it’s all about.

“Now far be it from me to call a learned professor a “slythy tove” or even a “mome rath,” but if this weird language doesn’t sound a whole lot like the strange scholastic gibberish which we plain people have had to listen to for the last three drab, monotonous, bewildering days in this courtroom, then I don’t know what does sound like which, where and elsewhere.

“Experts — the very word makes my blood run cold. First they prove one thing, and just as you’ve made up your mind that at last you really do thoroughly understand the difference between a clot of blood and a drop of blood, some other expert goes on the stand and turns all your hard-earned wisdom to the quaintest of all follies.”

How did she regard the effect of this conflicting testimony?

“The average man and woman in the room might as well have been gyring and gymbling in the wabe.”

IF DAVID LAMSON did kill his wife, what was his motive? Usually it's sex or money, or both. In this case, the prosecution decided it was strictly sex, but while there was much talk about Lamson's alleged affair with a San Francisco divorcée, the state failed to produce a witness to testify on the matter.

Winifred Black was convinced the state had not made its case. The jury disagreed, and David Lamson was convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. However, Lamson remained on death row only long enough to get material for a book that he would write ("We Who Are About to Die"). He won an appeal when the California Supreme Court ruled the judge had not permitted the defense to explore an alternative solution to the crime. A second trial was held. This time the jury could not agree (the vote was nine to three in favor of guilty), so a mistrial was declared.

A third trial was aborted before it could begin, because of a problem with the jury pool, but the state regrouped and tried Lamson one more time; again the jury voted nine to three to convict. Lamson went free when the state chose not to try him again, but through three trials, 30 jurors found him guilty, only six had voted not guilty.

In 1936 Lamson married Ruth Smith Rankin. A year later saw the release of the movie, "We Who Are About to Die," based in part on his book. Lamson wrote short stories — about 90 of them — over the next 15 years, then took a job with United Airlines. He and his second wife remained married until Lamson's death in 1975.
 
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