I want to talk about The Staircase. And I want to talk about one specific yet crucial aspect of the documentary and the case: sexuality and suspicion.
In December of 2001, Michael Peterson made a 911 call from his home in Forest Hills, North Carolina. His wife was not conscious but breathing, he told the operator, and she had fallen down the stairs. By the time the emergency response officials arrived, Kathleen had died. Police investigators soon set their sites on Peterson as responsible for Kathleen’s death.
Soon after the official indictment, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, French writer and director, began filming a documentary of the trial preparations and proceedings. What is perhaps most stunning about this documentary is the amount of access to the defense team’s meetings and counter-investigations. Watching it, now streaming as a miniseries on Netflix, you might first think this is a propaganda piece by Peterson’s defense team.
The accused and his family and his defense team seem to almost all live together in the sprawling Durham mansion, appearing on film in their pajamas or t-shirts, often tired and disheveled, sharing meals and paperwork, sometimes almost giddy with laughter at inside jokes that momentarily break the looming doom of a murder conviction.
The director, de Lestrade, had previously examined the U.S. justice system through an HBO documentary, Murder on a Sunday Morning, involving an accused 15-year-old, Brenton Butler, a working-class, Black, high school student who was on his way to submit an application for employment at a video rental store when he was picked up by Jacksonville, FL police as a possible suspect (wrong place, wrong time, wrong profile). Butler was violently coerced into a confession (something infuriatingly status quo). His attorneys — from the public defenders office — raised this issue during the trial, and the jury found him not guilty. According to de Lestrade, the Peterson/Staircase case offered an opportunity to look at another part of the spectrum of the U.S. justice system: an accused who was white, upper-class, a seemingly “pillar” of society with all the resources available to him to defend him in the courts.
But de Lestrade perhaps hadn’t realized that his documentary would wade into other layers of the U.S. cultural matrix, which is not so simple as a rich/poor or white/black spectrum.
Or maybe he did? In an interview in 2018, de Lestrade describes his decision to follow the Peterson case:
“When [Michael] was talking about his love with Kathleen, I really could feel that sincerity,” de Lestrade says. “But, at the same time, there was a kind of mystery about this man. It was a strange feeling.”
In that interview, with The Ringer, de Lestrade goes on to say that he believes Peterson was prosecuted because of his sexuality:
“I am 100 percent sure that Michael Peterson was prosecuted because they had found the gay porn stuff in his desk and in his computer and they said, “OK, we have the motive and we want to destroy this guy.” That was a very good starting point for a story because it was not just about who did it, it was much more about what kind of values you are defending in a community.”
In the documentary, Michael Peterson’s brother describes a moment after the police investigation team have gone through the house and left. On a table, which had been completely empty before, a single photograph of male-male sex pornography was placed, right in the center of the table. Peterson’s brother, Bill, who is a lawyer, says that in that moment, he immediately knew that the photograph was a message from the police and the D.A.’s office.
Let’s back up a bit to get some context about homosexuality, criminology, and true crime narratives in U.S. media. Cultural critic and “queer true crime” historian James Polchin recently published a history of true crime discourse involving gay men in the pre-Stonewall era of the twentieth century. His book, Indecent Advances, argues that
“World War I marked a watershed for interest in sexual deviancy within the growing fields of criminology and psychology in the United States. At the same time, an expanding tabloid press and popular magazine industry offered true stories of sex and crime with unprecedented salacious and shocking details, giving shape to a compelling genre of the modern era. The image of the queer criminal came to define homosexuality in these decades, harnessing all manner of state and medical responses. By the 1950s, queer true crime stories illustrated for early gay activists how homosexuals suffered amid the injustices of random violence, courtroom arguments, and press biases.”
Though his study stops a few decades short of the Peterson case, and his focus is heavily on the presentation of victims of crime through the lens of “gay sex panic,” his analysis of the work that mainstream and tabloid presses did, in concert with lawyers and judges, to construct a story about sexuality that shapes public opinion about criminality, is important groundwork for thinking about this 21st century docu-series about Michael Peterson’s trial in both the court room and in the media.
In a short piece on contemporary queer true crime, Polchin writes:
“While some queer crimes were sensationalized on the front pages, they were usually stories of violent, psychopathic, killers with homosexual tendencies. The stories of queer victims, of men found murdered in parks, hotel room, and private apartments by the men they brought home, were much more muted and coded in the press. The stories I found in my research, buried and forgotten in the pages of the daily newspaper, was a broader history of how queer men were criminalized in the courtrooms, on the streets, and in the press.”
The Staircase is different from Polchin’s primary focus, however, because Peterson stands accused of murdering his wife — he’s not the victim in the traditional sense. But the prosecution’s case relies on the jury believing that Peterson’s bisexuality, and his desire for sex with men, amounts to “evil” and a motive for murder.
Here is a series of screenshots from some of the trial portions of the documentary:
A. One of the prosecution attorneys arguing for the inclusion of evidence and testimony about Peterson’s sexuality and email conversations with a male escort. Apparently equating soap opera plots about infidelity to criminal motive.
B. Brent Wolgamott, the escort, testifies during the trial. In addition to answering the prosecution’s questions about “what kind” of sex he might have with his clients, he also explains his personal theory about the sexuality of his clients, who he believes are predominantly “straight with minor homosexual tendencies.”
C. Freda Black, from the prosecution team, was in charge of asking Wolgamott questions. Her whole purpose seemed to be to get Wolgamott to say the words “anal sex” in the court room for the jury. Here, she is laughing, along with the rest of the courtroom, to Wolgamott’s testimony that among his clients are “doctors, attorneys, a judge . . .”
Why are they laughing? Are gay white men just . . . funny? Are they laughing because they’re uncomfortable? . . . . Because they don’t want to admit that they’re AFRAID OF THE GAYS?
In the first episode of My Favorite Murder, (which I’ve already discussed on this blog, here and here) co-hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark reference The Staircase and the Peterson case. They aren’t covering this case “officially” as one of their favorite murders in this episode, but it comes up at the beginning of their very first episode because it relates to a party conversation that is part of the MFM lore for how Karen and Georgia bonded over true crime and set off on their path towards this beloved comedy true crime podcast. Anyway, to get to the point, Georgia vaguely remembers the “case” at the center of the The Staircase, and says, basically, the owl theory is ridiculous because
“This dude f**ing killed his wife when she found out he was a child molester or something . . .”
To which Karen responds,
“No, no, no, he was paying for male prostitutes.”
But the cat is out of the bag, so to speak, on Georgia’s mental calculations: Peterson was OBVIOUSLY guilty because there was sexual perversion proven in the case, which Georgia has remembered as “child molestation.” And, for Georgia, homosexuality=perversion=murderer.
I’ve pointed out their recourse to the most banal gender stereotypes when it comes to crime discourse before (for example), but here is a prime example of their recirculation of other gender and sexuality tropes: homosexuality is entwined with crime. It is already crime and it begets crime. It not only is equal to crime but it takes up mental-imaginary space alongside the WORST kind of crime we can hold in our minds about sex and that is “child molester.”
And the “we” is important, I think, in this performative paraphrasing, because part of the discourse that Karen and Georgia tap into AND produce, is an assumption of community or moral consensus about crime.
So, the prosecution was right. In a courtroom in North Carolina in the early 2000s, all they had to do was bring the words “anal sex” into the case to persuade the jury that the defendant was probably guilty.
And even more than that: in a comedy true crime podcast in 2016 by two self-avowed feminists, Peterson would continue to be “guilty” on the grounds of his sexuality: SUSPISH.
Here we can return to Polchin’s study of queer true crime earlier in the twentieth century:
“Even when they suffered such violence, queer men in the courts and the press were not always understood as victims. How the press defined these queer true crime stories—who were the victims and who were the criminals—was set within a constellation of cultural values, journalistic ethics, and political trends.”
This is how the jury’s decision is summarized on Wikipedia:
“On October 10, 2003, after one of the longest trials in North Carolina history, a Durham County jury found Peterson guilty of the murder of Kathleen, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Denial of parole requires premeditation. Despite the jury accepting the murder was a “spur-of-the-moment” crime, they also found it was premeditated. As one juror explained it, premeditated meant not only planning hours or days ahead, but could also mean planning in the seconds before committing a spur-of-the-moment crime.”
Writing for The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert says of the verdict, and its effect through the lens of de Lestrade’s film:
“When Peterson is found guilty, even the prosecutors seem surprised, given how limited their evidence was. But the series is clear about how much of a problem the eccentric, bisexual, erudite Peterson is for the jurors. The Staircase isn’t interested in theorizing who actually killed Kathleen (and includes only one offhand reference to the actually quite credible theory that an owl did) because its focus isn’t solving a mystery. It’s illuminating how flawed and naïve the concept of blind justice is. The jurors in Peterson’s case can no more put away their own preconceptions than they can realistically isolate themselves from TV news and the firestorm surrounding the case.”
And, writing for bi.org, a project of The American Institute of Bisexuality, Nancy Marcus describes her reaction to watching The Staircase on Netflix:
“In the end, it remains unclear how Kathleen Peterson died. (I’m quite seriously leaning toward “the owl did it!” theory). But it is quite clear that biphobia was used as a weapon against Michael Peterson by the criminal justice system, and biphobia played no small role in his murder conviction. And without any reasonable doubt, too many people in this tragic story equated bisexuality with the inability to have a happy marriage.”
And another reaction, on reddit, to the trial as seen through the documentary series:
In the end, several years after Peterson’s conviction, a retrial was ordered on the grounds that the prosecution used misleading or erroneous testimony and evidence (the blood-spatter expert was not, in fact, an expert and was misleading on the stand, not only in Peterson’s case, but in several others as well).
Facing a new trial, Peterson entered an “Alford plea,” which is a “no contest” plea but does not admit guilt. The new sentence, 86 months, was less than what Peterson had already served, so Peterson was free as of February, 2017, a little over 15 years after his wife’s death.
The defense team had previously filed unsuccessful appeals, including a motion that the Durham prosecution was biased against Peterson because Peterson had been a local columnist and had written several articles critical of the D.A. and the local police force on topics such as police brutality, incompetence, and corruption.
There was no legal pathway to appeal the prosecution’s use of “gay sex panic,” as it was termed in the twentieth century, to bias the jury, even though the judge in the original trial would go on to admit that prejudice affected the proceedings.
And de Lestrade’s lasting thoughts? Again, from the Ringer interview:
Do you personally think Michael Peterson did it?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I have no sure conviction. The only conviction I have is that [Michael] didn’t get the fair trial, and they really tried to get a conviction at any price. That’s really disturbing.
I’m amazed that Judge Hudson, after 15 years of hindsight, was willing to admit that he made decisions in the original trial that were prejudiced against Peterson.
At the end the judge says there’s reasonable doubt [that Peterson was guilty]. I think for everyone, when you look at this entire case, it’s a good lesson about what kind of system this justice system is. It’s very interesting.