January 16, 2005

Death on the Staircase

BBC Four have been showing Death on the Staircase in pairs of episodes nearly every day this week. I watched them all pretty much back to back, much as many watch 24 when the DVDs are released. Except that this series was much more like Murder One.

First of all, you must know that it's a documentary. Oscar winning film maker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade followed the case of Michael Peterson from the days just after he was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife. The facts are simple: on 9 Dec 2001, Peterson called 911 in a state. He'd found his wife dying at the bottom of a staircase in his house. She died. The police immediately began to suspect him of murder rather than it just being an accident.

The documentary, overy 8 45 minute episodes follows the case in detail with incredible access to the entire defence team including Peterson and his family itself.

Michael Peterson is a novelist by trade, but almost as if he'd scripted it all himself (and if you don't know the outcome of the case, I'll try not to allude to it, but reading much further may give you a hint of the outcome), there are twists and turns, with dark secrets coming to light and stories from the past emerging.

What the whole case does illustrate is that the justice system in America is inherently flawed with the media access available. Since I wasn't in court, I don't know what absolutely went on each day, but from what we saw which was quite extensive, and then the summing up given by Court TV (which was showing the trial live), sometimes beggared belief. In the UK, we have to report "he said" and "she said" with no editorial viewpoints. This is completely the reverse of what Court TV seemed to be doing which was making judgments in the same way a commentator might on a football match. Reprehensible stuff.

And the sexuality of Peterson that came out in the course of the trial worked against him to an incredible extent. Innocent or guilty, I don't know, but I can't imagine that he could really hide his bisexuality from his wife of 17 years - families sometimes just "cope" with things like this, and even accept them. That was something that just couldn't be countenanced in a North Carolina courtroom. The relationship could not have been good because otherwise he wouldn't have had to see male prostitutes. I'd beg to differ.

So overall, a stunning indictment of a legal system that highlights bigotry that's prevalent in some parts of America, and that also leads you to understand that having access to vast amounts of wealth is really necessary to stand a chance of putting on a good legal defence. I'd be interested to learn if there've been any further developments since the verdict was handed down...

Posted by adambowie at January 16, 2005 07:59 PM

I have watched this programme since it started and was glued to the screen. After watching all the evidence, I have concluded that this guy is a very good actor, as well as a brilliant writer of fiction. I conclude that it appears he has two personalities, one of a family man who is in love with his wife, and another of a bi sexual deviant! My question is, if he is capeable of deviancy in his other life as a bi sexual hunter of gay men in uniform, then why can't his split personality per se be questioned, when suspicion arises after the death of his wife ?

Posted by: t.v. watcher at July 18, 2005 12:43 AM

First off, don't read any further if you don't know what the outcome of the case was. I'm giving a lot away here.

I can honestly say that having watched the whole series twice over, I simply don't know whether Peterson murdered his wife or not.

However, there was absolutely no definitive proof that he did it. And in that respect it's not "Beyond Reasonable Doubt" and therefore he shouldn't have been convicted. Does that mean that a guilty man might have gone free? Yes. But it also means that a possibly innocent man is not incarcarated for the rest of his life.

The follow-up programme - The Aftermath - addressed this issue quite well. Peterson's lawyer argued quite convincingly that the "Beyond Reasonable Doubt" rider is not really observed at all. It really does mean that if you're not *CERTAIN* that the guy did it, you simply can't convict him. And yet he was found guilty of first degree murder which not only means he did it, but he also planned the murder in advance. Even if he was guilty, there was no way he planned it like this.

I think that more than anything, the series brings into question and focus the whole standing of the US legal system. Reason and rationale has no place in a system which is based around conflict and showing off.

The players simply aren't playing with a straight bat (to use a cricketing metaphor).

Posted by: Adam Bowie at July 19, 2005 12:01 AM
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