Is HBO Max series ‘The Staircase’ based on a true story?

‘The Staircase’ is a true-crime drama mini-series about the trial of Michael Peterson after he is suspected of murdering his wife and then making it look like an accident.

The mini-series is created and written by Antonio Campos and Maggie Cohn with Colin Firth playing the role of Michael Peterson and Toni Collete starring as his wife, Kathleen Peterson.

The series also stars Sophie Turner, Michael Stuhlbarg, Dane DeHaan and Patrick Schwarzenegger. ‘The Staircase’ has been a passion project of Antonio Campos since 2008 and in 2020 it was announced that HBO Max had landed the project for development.

‘The Staircase’ is based on a true-crime docu-series of the same name which was released in 2004 by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade.

The truth behind ‘The Staircase’ and its basis

In December 2001, novelist Michael Peterson called to report that his wife Kathleen had fallen down a set of stairs and died. The authorities disbelieved Peterson’s story that Kathleen had fallen while drunk and concluded instead that he had bludgeoned her to death, most likely with a blow poke that was discovered missing from the house. Peterson was soon charged with murder.

During the trial, it is discovered that while Peterson was living in Germany, his best friend’s widow and the mother of his adopted children died from an intracerebral haemorrhage, followed by the body falling downstairs after collapsing, which resulted in similar head injuries to those sustained by Peterson’s second wife.

This incident was used by the prosecution as a means of how Peterson got the idea to make Kathleen’s murder look like an accident. Throughout the trial, his daughter stood by his side supporting him all the way. Ultimately, a jury convicted him and he was sent to prison in 2003.

After eight years, Peterson was granted a new trial after the judge ruled a critical prosecution witness gave misleading testimony. In 2017, Peterson submitted an Alford plea to the reduced charge of manslaughter. He was sentenced to time already served and freed.

Following de Lestrade’s Oscar-winning Murder on a Sunday Morning, filming began soon on his French television mini-series after Peterson’s indictment. Camera crews were given access to the accused’s extended family, the defence attorneys, and the courtroom.

The documentary offers an intimate depiction of defence preparations for the trial. It also examines the role and behaviour of the press as it covered aspects of the case. The filmmakers started their project within weeks of Kathleen’s death and Peterson’s murder indictment; jury selection took place in May 2003 with the case itself going to trial in July 2003.

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