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Defense Attorney David Rudolf knows that the public is divided on whether Michael Peterson, the subject of the Netflix docu-series “The Staircase,” killed his wife Kathleen. But, there’s one thing that pretty much everyone can agree on: The man needs to avoid a home with staircases.
The docu-series follows Peterson’s trial for the murder of his wife Kathleen, who was found dead at the bottom of their staircase in their Durham, North Carolina home on December 9, 2001 — as well as the aftermath.
Three episodes in, the series-runners drop a major bombshell: Peterson was the last person to see another woman who was found dead at the bottom of a staircase in Germany in 1985. Her name was Elizabeth Ratliff, and she was a family friend of Peterson and his first wife Patricia, who was also living in Germany at the time. Ratliff died at the age of 43.
After her death, German officials concluded that Ratliff died of a cerebral hemorrhage which led to her falling down the stairs. But, as Peterson was being investigated for the staircase death of his wife in the early 2000s, Ratliff’s body was exhumed in Texas in 2003. The North Carolina medical examiner performed an autopsy and concluded that she died from blunt force injuries and that it was the result of a homicide. Peterson's lawyers took issue with the examiner's assessment.
Peterson was convicted of first-degree murder in connection with Kathleen’s death, and spent nearly a decade behind bars. He was granted a new trial in 2011, after a judge determined that a key prosecution witness lied on the stand during the original trial. But, in February 2017, just months before the scheduled retrial, Peterson submitted an Alford plea to the reduced charge of manslaughter. He was sentenced to time already served, and it was decided he would never face another day in court, or prison, for his wife's death.
Rudolf gave a behind-the-scenes look at the trial, and why he agreed to participate in the docu-series, made by a French documentary crew that first aired in the United States in 2005, and was updated and re-released on Netflix last year.
Rudolf said he agreed to participate in the documentary because the filmmakers had won an Academy Award in 2001 for “Murder on a Sunday Morning,” about a 15-year-old boy wrongfully accused of murder. The filmmakers had explored the American justice system in a case with a public defender, and wanted to explore a case with a wealthy defendant.
“They didn’t really care whether he did it or not,” Rudolf said Friday at CrimeCon in New Orleans. “That wasn’t what the documentary was going to be about. It wasn’t about the crime — it was about the process.”
Rudolf, sick of negative depictions of criminal defense lawyers, got on board.
“Wanted folks like you to see what we, criminal defense lawyers, actually do. We are not sleazy, we are not drunks, we don’t sell our clients out," Rudolf said. "That we don’t cheat or invent evidence, that we actually care about truth and representing people as well as they can be represented. From the comments I’ve gotten from a lot of people, it [“The Staircase”] achieved that purpose; it opens eyes to what criminal defense lawyers do.”
Peterson had a different rationale, Rudolf said.
“Michael had written a number of stories that were really critical of the Durham Police Department or the Mayor’s Office. He was not a friendly columnist. He was caustic and sarcastic and mean sometimes,” Rudolf said. “He was convinced it was going to be payback time once he got charged.”
While some viewers saw Peterson in the film and thought he was a narcissist, Rudolf said he wanted the film to be made for “simple self-preservation on his part.”
“He was making it hard for anyone to cheat, or at least to cheat without being caught,” Rudolf said. “As it turned out, that’s what happened. Able to use the clips eight years later, and that was a really important thing for the judge to see.”
Currently, Rudolf is in “occasional” contact with Peterson since his 2017 release.
“He’s living in Durham — I’m not sure why he’s living in Durham, but he is,” Rudolf told the audience at CrimeCon.
And, Rudolf gave a wry summary of a key feature of Peterson’s new living situation:
“He’s in a ground floor apartment with no stairs — that was a really important accommodation.”
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