The Staircase and What It Tells Us About the World We Live In


The Staircase, a serial documentary by director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade about the Michael Peterson murder case, may be the best documentary I’ve ever seen. Yeah, I think it is. (Why would anybody go to the trouble to watch a dramatization of this case when de Lestrade’s documentary exists?)

The Staircase

I’ve finished the tenth episode and will binge watch the last three episodes tonight. Mona, my lovely wife, has watched the series from the beginning. She’s enjoying it immensely in part because she did not know about this case before starting the series. I’m familiar with the case, but did—and will keep on doing—a great job of sequestering her from the facts. (So don’t go asshole on her in the comment section.)

I want to say some things to say about the case. So, if you want Mona’s experience, then get your ass away from this blog (come back to it later, after you have watched the series).

First, the prosecution’s theory of the case fails apart completely at the end of the first trial. Once the alleged murder weapon, the blow poke, is found in the corner of the garage unused for years, thus making it an impossible murder weapon, the state’s case collapses. They insisted that the lacerations to the back of Kathleen Peterson’s head had to have come from this instrument. They drove this into the jury’s mind in graphic detail. Live by the blow poke, die by the blow poke. 

Second, and relatedly, the prosecution’s use of a blow poke identical to the one found at the Peterson’s residence in order to plant in jury’s mind the blow poke as the death instrument in a murder (premeditated no less) they never actually proved beyond a reasonable doubt looks all the world to me like prosecutorial misconduct. The DA represents the state. The state is supposed to serve justice. You don’t stay with a clearly false theory of the case. 

Third, how did the cops not find the blow poke during their searches of the house? Did they know it was there unused for years and thus fail to report its presence? 

Fourth, the SBI blood spatter analyst, Duane Deaver, was so obviously incompetent and lying that my faith in the peer jury system has been severely shaken. The cross-examination of SBI’s Duane Deaver by Peterson’s defense attorney David Rudolf is devastating. How did the jury not see through Deaver? He’s a fraud. And a sociopath.

I had not watched the trial before (I only knew the outcome). I can now say that, had I sat on this jury, there is absolutely no way I would have allowed the other eleven jurors to talk me out of this conclusion: that the prosecution not only did not meet its burden, but that the case they brought against Peterson was a grave injustice. In other words, if I could not bring them to the reality of all this, I would have hung that jury.

Of course, as a criminologist and somebody who understands criminalistics and the law (not all criminologists do, for the record), I would never be allowed to sit on a jury in a murder case. My presence would make the affair more of a bench trial, wherein an honest expert would look at this evidence and come to a superior judgment than a jury of Peterson’s peers who know jack shit about science.

At the same time, in the end, the judge in this case, an official you would hope would be an honest and competent expert, needed to be beaten over the head with the obvious to make the correct ruling at the appeal that allowed Peterson to be put under house arrest (after spending nearly a decade in prison).

How that judge allowed the “evidence” of a similar accident in Germany and text messages concerning Peterson interest in male escorts and gay pornography is incredible to me. Watching the jury read those texts was difficult. How many homophobes were among them? Remember, this was the early 2000s.

(Folks have no idea how many married men are bisexual and engage in same-sex activities on the sly. The sociologists reading this post will know doubt know Laud Humphreys’ scandalous 1970 study Tearoom Trade.)

Finally, the DA, the police, the SBI—all state agencies—worked, if not in concert, in the pull of a convergence of interests they had no business pursuing in the manner in which they did, to misrepresent evidence and distort findings, even concealing exculpatory evidence and tests from the jury. It is horrifying to witness. 

But this is hardly a unique occurrence. The state works this way a great deal of the time. In fact, this was how Peterson got his retrial: some honest people stepped up and exposed Deaver and the SBI—folks who didn’t “trust the science.”

The state in the Peterson trial did all this not only in the name of “justice” but while waving the banner of science. The jury had no reason to disbelieve “the science.” After all, why would the state use the authority of science to deceive them? Why would the state put on the stand (what appeared to be) experts in their respective fields—charlatans in reality—to lock up a man, when honest and competent prosecutors (and judges) seeking justice would have to have known that the theory of the case failed utterly and, moreover, that the evidence did not support any conceivable theory of homicide? Yet the state did exactly that. 

* * *

I don’t meant to attack you personally, but this has to be said for the sake of the pursuit of the truth in science and in court: You are naive in the extreme if you believe the state isn’t doing to others what it did to people like Michael Peterson and his family. Not just in the field of the criminal law—in its warmongering (all the lies told in prosecuting the Vietnam war, in the Iraq war, in so many war, and now in the Ukrainian affair); in its suppression of political opposition (recall what was exposed at the Church Committee headings, FBI COINTELPRO efforts against the Black Panthers, and the current DHS persecution of members of the populist-nationalist movement); in the coup against a democratically-elected president (all the lies about Russian collusion, etc.).

The Church Committee

This is the work the term “conspiracy theory” is meant to do: not to enlighten you about conspiracies (a legal category) and the theories about them (matters of science), but to flip meaning on its head to keep you from recognizing that state actors are lying to you—to keep you in the dark about what they may be doing to you. It’s a thought-stopping device. 

There is a moment in an episode where Peterson wonders aloud with his legal team about conspiracy. He must feel like he’s trapped in Kafka’s Der Process (Peterson is himself a writer). There were moments when members of the Black Panthers talked about the conspiracy against them (see Kathleen Cleaver’s remarks in Deb Ellis and Denis Mueller 1990 documentary The FBI’s War on Black America). “You’re paranoid.” “You’re ego tripping.” But the FBI, CIA, DoD, state and local law enforcement—they were all in on the conspiracy.  

Remember what anonymous said long ago: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you—that they’re not watching you or interfering with your life.  

They want you to have faith in democracy. They tell you that the populists are “undermining public trust in elections,” that their criticisms “undermine faith in democracy.” (I actually know an academic who claims to be a critical thinker who nonetheless thinks free speech should be curtailed for those who question the integrity of our elections. He said this publicly to an audience nodding appreciatively.)

But democracy, justice, and science—these aren’t things in which one puts his faith. At least they shouldn’t be. These are action items, the pursuit of which must be transparent.

If you want to trust the results, don’t let other people do and think for you. Faith is for religious and quasi-religious doctrines like Critical Race Theory and other crackpot notions. The pursuit of truth requires something else entirely.

It will serve you well to keep in mind Karl Marx’s motto (borrowed from René Descartes perhaps): De Omnibus Dubitandum, Latin for “doubt everything” (sometime rendered “be suspicious of everything”). 

The Planet of the Apes (1968)

Also, remember this bit of dialogue from Planet of the Apes:

Taylor: “That’s the spirit. Keep ’em flying.”

Lucius: “What?”

Taylor: “The flags of discontent.”

* * *

(UPDATE!) I had scheduled this blog (which was based on a Facebook post) for this morning before Mona and I watched the final three episodes. Last night, we watched those episodes and it only reinforced the thoughts I expressed in my original post. Peterson taking the Alford plea was in a way tragic, of course, but it punctuated his and his attorney’s thoughts about the justice system in North Carolina, namely that it was unjust and corrupt. That they could not be sure of acquittal in a retrial given everything that was revealed over the course of those years is writ large in the growing distrust Americans express about their institutions.

I was reflecting on that this morning while listening to a discussion of the 2022 Arizona election on Steve Bannon’s War Room. At hand were the efforts by Kari Lake, the popular Republican candidate for governor of that red state, to get to the bottom of the 2022 election, a contest in which Katie Hobbs, the Democrat candidate for governor and then governor-elect and also secretary of state and therefore the chief election official, came from behind to win the election. Hobbs did not recuse herself nor did the state have any mechanisms for managing the obvious conflict of interest in this case.

Hobbs had won her position as state secretary in 2018 in a pattern highly similar to the one seen in Arizona and several states during 2020 election, where Trump won on election night only to see Biden chip away at his lead with overnight postal vote dumps. The same pattern was seen again in Hobbs’ 2022 win over Kari Lake. Lake enjoyed a consistent lead in the polling since mid-September and had pulled away several days out from election day (see below). Lake’s crowds were massive and enthusiastic. Hobbs, like Biden, ran a bunker-style campaign and refused to debate Lake. Hobbs was awkward in interviews and came across as peevish and petty—and she is obsessed with Donald Trump.

Had Hobbs been a Republican in a blue state, or were Arizona a third world country the West treated as antagonistic, accusations of a stolen election would have dominated the headlines. But, as it was, it was a Democrat victory in a blue state over a Trump-endorsed candidate. Kari Lake was clearly an “election denier,” a threat to democracy almost as great as Trump himself. This fed into the greater narrative that voters had rejected populism. How else given the conditions ripe for a red wave that the nation instead experienced a red puddle?

Given the polling, the crowds, and way the election was conducted, there’s no way Hobbs actually won the election, so I was thrilled when a judge agreed to hear Lake’s case, even if he only agreed to hear only two of her ten grievances. I watched in its entirely the trial and, despite clear evidence that official changed ballot-printer settings during the election and substantial disruption in the chain of custody for ballots in Maricopa County, the judge rejected her case on the grounds that it failed to provide clear and convincing evidence that these problems were intentional.

The judge worked from an impossible standard that rewards fraud and rigging by making criminal actions to appear accidental or as incompetence. The standard in an election should rather be about process and outcome, namely, did the actions of election officials, whether as a result of incompetence or criminality, (a) disenfranchise voters and (b) would chance the outcome of the election? If the answer to these questions is yes, then run another election. Moreover, do a full forensic audit of every voting precinct in Arizona. Hobbs and election officials in Maricopa stood in the way of every effort to get to the bottom of the case, even when that state’s attorney general demanded answers. At trial it was revealed that officials were still trying to figure out what happened. Yet Hobbs certified her own victory.

You may feel this is a digression, but it goes to the question of institutional integrity and public trust in our judicial system, which is precisely my point concerning the Peterson case. That the state in both cases, with its immense power and resources over against those who seek justice, is able to operate in a black box and effectively flip the burden to the aggrieved (who, in the Lake case, include the people of Arizona), should push citizens to demand reforms that breathe life back into the Bill of Rights and American Democracy.

At the end of the Peterson documentary, the judge who presided over the case, Orlando Hudson, finally, in a roundabout way, admitted to the documentarians that he should have allowed in neither the Germany case nor the evidence of Peterson’s homosexuality as, had these been excluded, reasonable doubt would have been likely established and Peterson acquitted or the jury hung. And although it was this judge who created the grounds for a retrial only after the SBI scandal had come to light, he did not throw out the case on the grounds of shoddy police work, fraudulent manipulation of evidence, or prosecutorial misconduct, but forced Peterson into the Alford plea.

I learned in those last three episodes that the blow poke had in fact been found by crime scene technicians Eric Campen and Dan George. Under the direction of Thomas Dew, who worked for the prosecution, the three, along with Deaver, accompanied the Durham police department to take measurements of the Peterson home pursuant to the search warrant. They found in the boiler room the blow poke, took the instrument outside and photographed it, then put it in the garage, where it was found a year later in the state as described in this blog. Both Dew and Deaver witnessed this. All this was hidden from defense counsel at trial and skirted in testimony. In other words, there was a conspiracy to convict Michael Peterson.

I also learned in those final episodes that no DNA tests were conducted by the state in this case and evidence from the case was kept in such a manner that cross-contamination of crucial items could not be ruled out. In fact, items from another case had been thrown into the same boxes and the Peterson case. The attempt to shame defense attorney Rudolf for his handling of evidence at trial (he was not wearing gloves) seemed to be an attempt to obscure the fact that proper testing of the evidence should have occurred before the original trial. Evidence is often handled in this way at trial. Indeed, we learned that certain test that was done had been kept from the court by state investigators (and perhaps prosecution). It is my opinion that it was only the incompetence of Peterson’s then-attorney Mary Jude Darrow that allowed the DA and judge to sidestep these issues.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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