Written by TV

Death on the Staircase: The Last Chance

Back in early 2005, BBC Four showed an extraordinary eight-part documentary series called Death on the Staircase. It was originally made for French television by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, and covered a single murder case prosecution in extraordinary detail.
Michael Peterson, an author, writer and sometime local politician, who lived in some comfort with his family in North Carolina, was charged with the murder of his wife who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in their palatial home. The original court case took place in 2003.
The documentary series covered the run-up to, and the detail of the trial itself. The documentary also addressed the media coverage of the trial and in particular the day by day nightly Court TV commentary.
At the time I was riveted by it.
The forensic detail with which it covered the case was amazing, and the construction of the documentary series was such that it was like a television drama. New pieces of evidence would emerge that suddenly clouded the waters. Episodes ended with cliffhangers as we learnt new information – not always obviously directly relevant to the case.
In the end, he was convicted and sent to prison.
As viewers, we could never know for certain whether he was innocent or guilty. However as presented, it did not look like he was guilty beyond reasonable doubt, to at least this viewer.
The series got several repeats on BBC Four. But unfortunately, if you’re coming to this fresh today, your best option is an import DVD, since the series never got a UK release. From what I can see, this US version offers the best value.
This brand new two hour film – Death on the Staircase: The Last Stand – shown in BBC Four’s wonderful Storyville slot on Monday night, brings us up to date with the case, as we return to the main characters nearly ten years later.
An expert witness used in another case has had his evidence quashed and has been accused of misrepresenting scientific data on a regular basis. This forms the grounds for a new appeal for Peterson since this witness’s evidence was so crucial in the original case. The defence are calling for a retrial and the expert witnesses evidence to be thrown out.
What is especially clear when we first meet him again is that Peterson looks a lot older. His eight years in prison have not been kind to him, and he’s now clearly an old man. But remains the same man underneath – his mannerisms are distinct. His hair may no longer be dyed but he has the same bushy eyebrows. In the original series he had a very ambivalent attitude throughout proceedings, perhaps never really believing that he could be convicted.
Now he’s a little more animated. The reality of that prison time probably does that to you.
His two direct daughters still support him, as do most of the rest of the family. But tensions remain high, as a new appeal is heard. And a daughter on his dead wife’s side has perhaps understandably removed herself from the rest of the family. They no longer speak. We don’t see new footage of her in this film.
You don’t need to have watched the original series to understand what’s happening in this follow up. Most of the major issues surrounding the case are revisited in flashback. That said, even if it was eight years since you last watched this programme like it was for me, having a previous understanding of the case gives you a different insight into this new film.
I won’t “spoil” the outcome of the programme since although it’s a documentary, it does have a conclusion… of sorts.
And it’s just terrific television. And kudos to Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and his team for following this case so determinedly over the years.
By the way – the recent run of Storyville on BBC Four is nothing less than fantastic. We had the terrific The Queen of Versailles last week about a property developer building an enormous mansion as the economic downturn hits, and a couple of weeks before that it was The House I Live In on America’s “War on Drugs.” Both are remarkable pieces and are thoroughly worth watching (and at time of writing, still available on the iPlayer).
Seriously, all three of these films are worthy of your time.