The last half hour of The Staircase, an eight-hour Sundance documentary about the murder trial of novelist Michael Peterson by filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, is almost entirely without dialogue. After the court reporter reads the verdict — which sends Peterson to prison for life — she polls each juror in open court, asking if they believe the defendant to be guilty. As each of them answers in the affirmative, Lestrade cuts between the faces in the courtroom: Peterson stunned but still calculating, his daughters Margaret and Martha frozen in grief, his lawyer David Rudolf genuinely shocked by the verdict and prosecutors Jim Hardin and Freda Black no less surprised.
The camera follows Peterson as he is handcuffed and swallowed into the courthouse's belly, trailing him and five deputies through a maze of barred doors and fluorescent lights until he reaches a police cruiser, whereupon he collapses in a mix of grief and relief, his head hanging in shame for the first time in years. Michael Peterson does not cry, but his children — back in the house where their adopted father supposedly killed their stepmother — do. Young Martha, the only child to really truly believe her father's innocence, is inconsolable, while her older siblings silently take inventory of their lives, and realize that they are left with nothing but each other and a sadness that will not wane.
Over eight episodes, The Staircase chronicled the prosecution and defense of Michael Peterson. He was accused by North Carolina law enforcement of murdering his wife Kathleen on December 9, 2001. He claimed that she simply fell down the stairs. As a novelist specializing in Vietnam fiction, Peterson's coffers are full, and so he hires a dozen or so lawyers and experts to defend his life. It doesn't take long for them to realize that he is, most likely, guilty.
A narcissist, Peterson at times seems to delight in his prosecution, in the attention that he is getting. And it's plainly obvious throughout that he believes he will get away with it. But in the privacy of his home, we see Peterson interact with his children, and his belabored responses and actions toward them reveal a tremendous amount of guilt.
When Peterson's extramarital dalliances with male escorts are revealed, the case takes a turn toward the sordid, and immediately Court TV and the like begin following it closely. Peterson's explanation is painfully extracted, as he portends that his and Kathleen's marriage was an ideal one, just that she couldn't satisfy his urges the way a hilariously frank man from a military-themed gay escort service could. But as he rationalizes his affairs, Peterson reveals too much, calling Kathleen "demanding" and "a part of every aspect of my life" in a tone that implies a venom that the defense team would rather do without.
The lawyers know that the case they have been presented is an odd one. While Peterson's explanation of a fall can't explain the amount of lacerations on his dead wife's head or the incredible amount of blood at the scene without a magic bullet-type theory, the prosecution doesn’t have much to go on to explain how else it occurred either. The case then comes down to the prosecution making the fall theory seem implausible and the defense the opposite. The inept prosecution fails spectacularly, proclaiming the murder weapon to be a mysteriously absent blowpoke. The item is found by the defense toward the end of the trial in Peterson's garage, and an examination of the metal rod proves that it was not used to kill Kathleen Peterson.
Even though Michael Peterson seems guilty, the prosecution never proves it. Instead, prosecutor Freda Black — whose sack-like dresses and obnoxious demeanor suggest a level of prissiness heretofore undiscovered — simply says the phrases "homosexual," "bisexual" and "anal sex" as often and as angrily as she possibly can, hoping to play on an uneducated jury's prejudices against carnal malfeasance. And, as the verdict suggests, it works: there is little evidence offered that damns Peterson, aside the coincidental fact that a woman he knew in Germany died by falling down the stairs 20 years prior, yet he is found guilty anyway.
Lestrade tells this story carefully, relishing in the minutiae of forensics and Peterson's bottomless well of self-congratulation. There are no epiphanies, just slow unravelings. Most fascinating is watching Peterson's high-priced defense team construct scenarios around their client's thin lies: even though everyone in the room knows that they are building a house on sand, they have makeshift props and buttresses at the ready for every situation. But they can not account for an awful judge, a man named Orlando Hudson whose cases, as a postscript says, are regularly overturned by the North Carolina Supreme Court, and a jury that seems to have little respect for the burden of proof. And so for now, Michael Peterson sits in a jail cell awaiting his appeal, dreaming of Saigon and convinced that the perfect murder is only a competent judge away.