Judge Bryan Byun was thinking about offing somebody, but after seeing this documentary about an accused murderer's defense, he realized that these days, only millionaires can afford to kill.
Accident or cold-blooded murder?
It's been nearly three years now since I cancelled my cable TV service, and for the most part, I haven't regretted it. Sometimes I wish I had it back again—season premieres of The Sopranos, for instance—but every time I'm in a hotel room or in someone's house and spend any length of time watching TV, I'm glad to be out of that particular loop. The good stuff, and there is plenty of it, no doubt, simply isn't worth the spiritual corrosion that results from even brief exposure to the crap.
You can tell how badly the makers of The Staircase, an eight-part documentary series that aired on the Sundance Channel earlier this year, want their show to be one of the good ones. A chronicle of the murder trial of Michael Peterson, a 58-year-old novelist accused of killing his wife, Kathleen, The Staircase is full of arty, melancholy shots of the Petersons' Durham, North Carolina mansion, devoid of narration, and reluctant—mostly—to linger on lurid shots of the bloody crime scene. As exploitations of sensational murder trials go, The Staircase is fairly tasteful.
On the night of December 9th, 2001, a frantic Michael Peterson called 911 to report finding his wife lying at the bottom of the stairs of his house, unconscious but breathing. Police arrived to find Kathleen Peterson dead in a pool of blood. A week later, Michael was charged with first-degree murder.
Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, who won an Oscar in 2002 for the similarly-themed documentary feature Murder on a Sunday Morning (which followed the 2000 trial of an African-American teenager wrongfully accused of murder), received extraordinary access to Michael Peterson and his defense team, and closely follows the preparation of Peterson's case, which includes mock prosecution questioning, focus group testing of expert witness testimony, and even professional training to make sure Peterson stays calm and speaks eloquently on the stand. Peterson is obviously a wealthy man (although, we soon find, the family fortunes appear to have been waning, which the prosecution alleges motivated the murder). Watching his no doubt expensive defense team crossing the globe for evidence to exonerate their client, it's easy to see why the wealthy fare so much better in criminal trials than regular folks.
Lestrade didn't get the same kind of cooperation from the prosecutors that he did from the defense, so naturally the series tends to be biased towards the defendant. But although Lestrade clearly believes he's presenting a favorable view of Peterson, his own footage tends to undercut his case. The more we see of Michael Peterson—his alternating bouts of melodramatic grief and callous gallows humor, his frequent outbursts about persecution—the more he comes across as a nervous sociopath rather than an innocent, loving husband. The defense team, blatantly performing for the camera, is constantly grandstanding and crowing about its role as a bulwark against "government excesses." From the first episode, in which a defense-hired forensic investigator argues that the copious spray of blood at the base of the stairway where Kathleen's body was found may have been from her "coughing," it's clear that the defense's case is pretty weak. It doesn't help that the experts hired to present the defense argument self-righteously cloak themselves in objectivity, yet fail to even consider the possibility of murder before launching into their convoluted explanations of how Kathleen's brutal injuries could have resulted from a fall down some stairs.
What's worse, Kathleen doesn't even emerge as a person in this documentary until fairly late in the game; we see her as a bloodied corpse before we ever get to know her as a person. This is Michael Peterson's documentary through and through, and the fact that he comes across as poorly as he does in this sympathetic portrait doesn't speak well for his innocence.
I won't spoil the outcome of the trial or the juicy twists and turns along the way, but those looking for salacious details and ample helpings of sleaze and schadenfreude won't be disappointed. Neither the defense nor the prosecution emerge from the case looking very good. One of the many telling moments in the series comes during a preliminary hearing, when each side accuses the other of manipulating the media for unfair advantage. Given that the whole thing is being recorded—with consent and encouragement—on camera, the debate takes on a deliciously smarmy irony.
Ultimately, I'm not sure what value this documentary series holds, aside from voyeuristic thrills. Since everyone on camera is clearly performing for the public, it's hardly an accurate view of what goes on behind the scenes of a criminal defense. We see only what Peterson's lawyers allow us to see, so the whole thing comes across as little more than a press kit for Peterson's legal team. The trial footage is masterfully assembled for maximum drama, but we've seen this kind of thing before.
The Staircase is presented on two discs, with four episodes per disc. I received a promo copy of the DVD, lacking the extra features or menus that will be on the final release, so I can't review the bonus features, but they should include a Step by Step: The Making of The Staircase mini-documentary, text-based character/crew biographies, a "Filmmaker Insights" feature, and additional interviews with family members. Video quality is excellent for a television documentary, presented in widescreen with a pristine transfer (the feature looks to have been shot on digital video, and image quality is variable but generally crisp and vivid), and Dolby Digital stereo sound that is more than adequate to the task of presenting a predominately dialogue-based soundtrack.
While fans of courtroom drama and reality TV will undoubtedly eat this
series up, I can't say that I especially enjoyed this wallow through the smarmy
world of crime and punishment. I'm left feeling more than a little jaded and
disgusted by the whole legal circus, and even more cynical than before about how
artificial and staged every aspect of the process is these days. Is Michael
Peterson guilty? Regardless of the verdict, it's hard to know the
truth—especially after our so-called justice system gets done with it. As
for The Staircase itself, this court finds the defendant not guilty, on
grounds of insufficient evidence.
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• Step by Step: The Making of The Staircase
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