Whenever a movie or TV series based on real-life events comes out, viewers are often left with two burning questions: how much of what we saw is actually true, and what became of these characters after the cameras stopped rolling? HBO Max’s true crime drama, The Staircase, is no exception to this phenomenon. Created by Antonio Campos, this eight-episode miniseries features Colin Firth and Toni Collette in the roles of novelist Michael Peterson and his second wife, Kathleen Peterson, an executive at Nortel. In 2001, Kathleen tragically lost her life on the staircase of the Peterson residence in Durham, North Carolina. Despite Michael’s claims that his wife had fallen down the stairs, he was charged with her murder and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment in 2003, following one of the longest trials in North Carolina’s history.
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The Staircase takes viewers on Michael’s legal journey to reclaim his freedom, offering a glimpse into the lives of the Peterson family both before and after Kathleen’s death. The series also delves into the work of French documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, who, from 2003 to 2018, meticulously crafted a docuseries on the case, also titled The Staircase. Lestrade’s documentary played a pivotal role in the Peterson case and served as the primary source of inspiration for Campos’ miniseries.
In the final episode of the miniseries, we witness Michael Peterson taking his first steps towards rebuilding his life as a free man. However, many viewers are left wondering: what happened to him after he accepted the Alford plea in 2017? And what became of the other key figures who played pivotal roles in this gripping story? Here’s a glimpse into their lives following the events portrayed in The Staircase.
Sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Kathleen Peterson, Michael experienced a significant turning point in 2011 when new evidence came to light. It was revealed that a key prosecution witness, blood-spatter analyst Duane Deaver (portrayed by Myke Holmes in the series), had provided misleading information under oath, including exaggerating his qualifications in forensic investigation. This revelation led to Michael being granted a new trial. In 2011, he was released on a $300,000 bail and placed under house arrest. As depicted in the miniseries, Michael made a pivotal decision in 2017 when he accepted an Alford plea, pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter. This decision resulted in a prison sentence of seven years and one month, though he was released immediately due to having already served eight years during his initial trial.
Following a breakup with Sophie (played by Juliette Binoche) and his decision to relocate to Paris, Michael moved in with his ex-wife Patty (portrayed by Trini Alvarado). Now at the age of 79, he resides alone in a ground-floor apartment in Durham, North Carolina, having sold the house he once shared with Kathleen. Michael returned to his passion for writing and authored two books sharing his perspective on the case: “Behind the Staircase” in 2019 and “Beyond the Staircase” in 2020. Notably, Michael cannot profit from these books, as the proceeds are directed towards charitable causes.
Michael Peterson has largely stayed out of the public eye, expressing displeasure with the HBO Max miniseries and feeling betrayed by documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. In a series of emails to Variety, he accused Lestrade of exploiting him and his family. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that Lestrade’s work played a crucial role in his release from prison.
In a recent interview with the Wrongful Conviction podcast, Michael discussed the documentary’s impact on his trial and criticized the HBO miniseries, referring to it as “an abomination.” He expressed his belief that the series had negatively affected his family’s life. However, he recognized that his case possessed all the elements of a compelling true crime drama, including themes of sex, money, and murder. It’ll never go away now; it’s just a part of our culture.
Todd, portrayed by Patrick Schwarzenegger, stood unwaveringly by his father’s side throughout the tumultuous twists and turns of the case. Much like his character in “The Staircase,” Todd actively maintained a robust presence on social media. However, following the release of the HBO miniseries, Todd’s Instagram profile mysteriously vanished. Prior to its disappearance, Todd underwent a significant change of heart regarding his father’s involvement in Kathleen’s tragic death. In a livestream event, later uploaded to YouTube, he made startling accusations against Michael. Todd alleged that his father was not only responsible for Kathleen’s death but also implicated him in the deaths of his mother, Patricia, and family friend Elizabeth.
According to Todd, Michael had purportedly delayed calling 911 for three hours during Patty’s heart attack. Furthermore, Todd claimed that his father had engaged in an extramarital affair with Kathleen. Despite now harboring these beliefs about his father’s guilt, Todd still dismisses “The Staircase” as “nonsense.” His evolving perspective has added another layer of complexity to the already intricate and contentious narrative surrounding the case.
In the miniseries, Clayton Peterson, portrayed by Dane DeHaan, served a four-year prison sentence for an attempted bombing at Duke University that occurred years before Kathleen Peterson’s tragic death. His character in the show is depicted as a troubled young man who eventually decides to turn his life around. Interestingly, it appears that in real life, Clayton has experienced a positive turnaround. Presently, he resides in Baltimore, Maryland, where he pursues a career as an engineer. Clayton remains married to Becky, played by Hannah Pniewski in the series, and the couple has two children together. Unlike Michael and Todd, Clayton has maintained a low profile and has not publicly commented on his portrayal in “The Staircase.” His life appears to have taken a more stable and private path.
The passing of Elizabeth Ratliff had a profound impact on her youngest daughter, Martha, played by Odessa Young in the miniseries. Following Kathleen’s tragic death, Martha experienced a severe form of anxiety, further exacerbated by Michael’s protracted and highly public legal battle. In Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s documentary series, Martha openly discusses her struggles with mental health.
Today, Martha resides in Colorado and has forged a career as a psychotherapist. Her professional journey involves assisting individuals who grapple with the very same emotional and psychological challenges that once affected her profoundly.
Caitlin, portrayed by Olivia DeJonge, held a unique perspective within the Peterson family. As Kathleen’s biological daughter, she was the sole child from the Peterson household who firmly believed in Michael’s culpability in her mother’s tragic demise. This belief created an estrangement between Caitlin and her step-siblings.
Currently, Caitlin resides in Virginia with her husband and their twin children. In 2002, she took legal action by filing a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Michael, which ultimately resulted in a settlement of $25 million in 2007. However, there is speculation that Michael may not have paid the full settlement amount, given the financial strain the trial imposed on him. In fact, Caitlin’s attorney filed another complaint against him after his release in 2017, aiming to dissuade him from profiting from the case.
Sophie Brunet and Michael Peterson shared a relationship that spanned from 2004 to 2017. However, Brunet made a deliberate choice to withhold her correspondence with Peterson until she had completed her work on the eight original episodes of The Staircase. She harbored reservations about being portrayed as a character in Campos’ miniseries and felt somewhat coerced by the show’s creator.
Nonetheless, Brunet ultimately acquiesced to a meeting with Juliette Binoche, and she described her connection with the renowned actress as an unexpected source of solace and happiness amid her challenging journey.
Brunet continues to thrive in her career as a film and TV editor in France. Notably, she contributed her editing talents to highly acclaimed projects such as the movie “Blue Is the Warmest Color” and the Netflix series “Call My Agent!”.
David Rudolf, the defense attorney who remained dedicated to his career and his marriage, is still happily wed to journalist Sonya Pfeiffer. They reside in Toronto, where Rudolf now practices law at the prestigious firm Brauti Thorning LLP, specializing in litigation and corporate matters. In addition to his work at the new firm, Rudolf maintains a connection to his own law practice, Rudolf Widenhouse.
Beyond his legal endeavors, Rudolf and Pfeiffer have ventured into the art world as the proud owners of the Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art in Charlotte, North Carolina. Furthermore, they’ve embarked on a creative journey together by co-hosting the podcast “Abuse of Power,” which delves into compelling stories of individuals who have experienced injustices within the legal system. This topic is also the focal point of Rudolf’s 2022 book, “American Injustice: Inside Stories from the Underbelly of the Criminal Justice System.”
However, much like his client Michael Peterson, Rudolf didn’t entirely approve of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s portrayal of their legal journey. Rudolf took particular issue with certain scenes that insinuated Michael withheld information from him and questioned the ethical nature of his professional relationship with Pfeiffer. In an interview with Variety, he humorously critiqued his depiction in the show, playfully remarking about a scene featuring himself and Michael engaged in conversation over a pastrami sandwich, suggesting it could have been clarified with a simple caption, ‘Jewish lawyer from New York.’
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Vincent Vermignon, the talented actor who portrayed Jean-Xavier de Lestrade in the HBO Max miniseries, was already an Academy Award winner before becoming involved in the Michael Peterson case. His documentary “Murder on a Sunday Morning,” which focused on the wrongful accusation of a Black teenager for the murder of a tourist in Jacksonville, Florida, earned him the coveted Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2002. With “The Staircase,” de Lestrade embarked on a monumental project that spanned 15 years, with the final episodes of the documentary being released in 2018.
However, de Lestrade’s connection to the Peterson story extended beyond the documentary. He was the one who sold the story to Antonio Campos, which ultimately led to the creation of the HBO Max miniseries. Like Michael Peterson and Sophie Brunet, de Lestrade expressed dissatisfaction with the fictional adaptation of his docuseries. He claimed that Campos misinterpreted facts, resulting in a portrayal that painted him as an unethical filmmaker.
Following his work on “The Staircase,” as depicted in the HBO Max series, de Lestrade transitioned into the realm of fiction. He directed two fictional series in France, showcasing his versatility as a filmmaker. In 2020, he helmed “Laëtitia,” a gripping true crime drama that delves into the 2011 abduction of 18-year-old Laëtitia Perrais.
While not officially part of the defense team, Bill Peterson, portrayed by Tim Guinee, played a pivotal role in securing his brother Michael’s release from prison. Being a lawyer himself, Bill made significant contributions to the legal strategy, including recommending David Rudolf as a defense attorney. He also took charge of handling most of the Peterson family’s legal affairs during this challenging period.
Following Michael’s release, Bill returned to his home in Reno, Nevada, where he resides with his family. He continues his legal career as a practicing partner in a reputable local firm, providing valuable legal services to the community.
In real life, Patty, portrayed by Trini Alvarado, not only supported her ex-husband Michael throughout the trials but also welcomed him into her home after his release. They resided together in Durham until Patty tragically passed away from a heart attack in 2021. However, her death is shrouded in mystery and controversy. Patty’s son, Todd, has made unsettling allegations, claiming that Michael delayed calling 911 for over three hours when Patty fell ill, purportedly driven by financial concerns. This has raised questions and added complexity to Patty’s untimely passing. In a surprising twist, Todd has since revised his beliefs about his father’s involvement, now suspecting Michael of not only Patty’s death but also that of Elizabeth Ratliff.
Kathleen’s sister Candace, portrayed by Rosemarie DeWitt, played a prominent role in the case. She notably presented the prosecution with a significant piece of evidence: the alleged murder weapon, a fireplace poker, also known as a blow poke, which she had gifted to the Petersons for Christmas. Today, Candace chooses to lead a more private life, avoiding the glare of the spotlight, and resides in peaceful Alexandria, Virginia.
At the time of Kathleen’s tragic death, Deaver, portrayed by Myke Holmes in the show, held the position of a blood spatter analyst at the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI). During Peterson’s trial, he asserted that the blood spatter patterns surrounding Kathleen’s death indicated a brutal beating. Deaver claimed to have extensive experience, having worked on approximately 500 bloodstain cases.
However, Deaver’s professional ethics and qualifications were brought into question, primarily due to his involvement in the wrongful conviction of Greg Taylor for the murder of Jacquetta Thomas in 1993. It was revealed that Deaver had not only exaggerated the number of cases he had worked on but also lacked proper forensics training, and was implicated in lab misconduct. Consequently, he was dismissed from his position in 2011. He attempted to challenge his termination, but in 2014, the court upheld his firing.
Interestingly, in the same year, the North Carolina Human Resources Commission determined that his dismissal should have resulted in a demotion rather than termination and ordered the SBI to provide him with 34 months’ worth of wages.
As depicted in the miniseries, Assistant District Attorney Freda Black, portrayed by Parker Posey, made a significant career shift in the decade following Michael’s conviction. Prior to this, she had made two unsuccessful bids for the position of District Attorney in 2006 and 2008, as well as an unsuccessful campaign for the Durham County District Court. Despite her efforts, these positions remained out of reach. Tragically, Freda Black passed away in 2018 at the age of 57, succumbing to end-stage liver disease.