Colin Firth as Michael Petersen in The Staircase

Is ‘The Staircase’ Based on a True Story and Where Is Michael Petersen Now?

In May of 2022, HBO Max released the shocking and puzzling crime miniseries, The Staircase. The series follows Michael Peterson (Colin Firth), a crime novelist who is accused of murdering his wife. The accusation arises when Peterson calls 911, claiming that he found his second wife, Kathleen Peterson (Toni Collette), dead at the bottom of a staircase in their home. An investigation into Kathleen’s death begins and the media develops a strong interest in the case.

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Almost immediately after the death occurs, the Peterson family’s story catches the attention of a French documentary team. The documentary team started filming soon after Peterson’s arrest. They would also produce a docuseries on the case titled The Staircase. HBO Max’s The Staircase, is based off of the original The Staircase docuseries created in 2004 by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. So, The Staircase covers the Peterson case, as well as the development of the initial docuseries.

The Staircase wrapped up its miniseries on June 9, 2022. Reception to the series was very positive and viewers especially praised Firth’s portrayal of Peterson. It is certainly a very complex series that leaves viewers uncertain about what truly happened on that staircase the day Kathleen died. Meanwhile, the story behind The Staircase makes the series even eerier.

Is The Staircase based on a true story

HBO Max poster for The Staircase
(HBO Max)

The Staircase is based on the real-life story of Peterson, who was accused in 2001 of murdering his second wife. The incident occurred on December 9, 2001, when Peterson called 911 to report that he had found his wife unconscious at the foot of a staircase in their home. Peterson claimed he had been outside of the home, only to return and find Kathleen by the staircase, insinuating she fell down the stairs accidentally. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

Kathleen died from multiple lacerations on her head and the medical examiner would identify the lacerations as being consistent with an assault. There was some dispute about whether the lacerations were consistent with injuries one would sustain from a fall down the stairs or not, but the medical examiner ultimately declared homicide as Kathleen’s cause of death. Of course, since Peterson was the only person present during the incident, he became the prime suspect and was soon charged with murder.

Within weeks of his arrest, de Lestrade began documenting the case and capturing everything from the preparation for the trial up to the verdict. After a long trial, Peterson was found guilty of murdering Kathleen and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. However, in 2010 it came to light that Duane Deaver, a primary analyst and witness in the trial, had given false evidence and a misleading testimony. This led to a retrial in which Peterson took an Alford plea and was resentenced to time already served and, therefore, released from prison in 2017.

Where is Michael Peterson today?

After Peterson was jailed, Sophie Brunet reached out to him by sending him a letter. She had first met him while serving as an editor for de Lestrade’s The Staircase docuseries. By 2004, the two had begun a relationship which lasted all the way up to Peterson’s release. Upon his release, though, Peterson and Brunet quickly broke up, as Peterson didn’t want to move to Paris to be with her. Instead, he ended up living temporarily with his ex-wife, Patti, who had supported him during his trial.

In the years since he has been released, Peterson has written two books: Behind the Staircase and Beyond the Staircase. The memoirs provide his version of what happened the night Kathleen died, along with his experiences in prison and after his release. He isn’t allowed to profit off of the case, so proceeds from his books are donated in full to charity.

Today, Peterson lives alone in Durham, SC. Aside from his writing, he seems to live a quiet life and keeps a low profile. However, he did speak out after HBO Max released The Staircase and slammed the docuseries for “betraying” him and for allegedly fabricating the case. To this day, he still maintains his innocence.

(featured image: HBO Max)


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Rachel Ulatowski
Rachel Ulatowski is a Staff Writer for The Mary Sue, who frequently covers DC, Marvel, Star Wars, literature, and celebrity news. She has over three years of experience in the digital media and entertainment industry, and her works can also be found on Screen Rant, JustWatch, and Tell-Tale TV. She enjoys running, reading, snarking on YouTube personalities, and working on her future novel when she's not writing professionally. You can find more of her writing on Twitter at @RachelUlatowski.