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How Did Freda Black, Prosecutor From 'The Staircase,' Die?

Prosecutor Freda Black, portrayed by Parker Posey in HBO Max's "The Staircase," was found dead on her couch years after she prosecuted novelist Michael Peterson for the death of his wife Kathleen Peterson.

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Freda Black, best known for being a prosecutor during Michael Peterson’s 2003 murder trial, did not live to see her depiction in the upcoming dramatic series “The Staircase," which portrays the case.

Parker Posey plays Black in the eight-episode HBO Max series, which debuts on Thursday. It also stars Colin Firth, of “The King’s Speech” fame, alongside Toni Collette, Juliette Binoche, and Rosemarie DeWitt. 

While serving as a Durham County prosecutor, Black helped win the 2003 conviction against Michael Peterson, a novelist, for the murder of his wife, Kathleen Peterson, whose bloody and battered body was found at the bottom of a staircase in the North Carolina home she shared with Michael in 2001. Black delivered the closing arguments that secured the guilty verdict.

Parker Posey as Freda Black in The Staircase

While Michael Peterson spent nearly a decade behind bars, he was granted a new trial in 2011 after a judge determined that a key prosecution witness, former investigator Duane Deaver, provided unreliable testimony during his trial. Deaver had testified that bloodstain analysis from the scene indicated that Kathleen Peterson's injuries were sustained during a fatal beating — not from an accidental fall.

Deaver was fired from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation in 2011 after allegedly providing false testimony at a number of trials.

In 2017, just months before the scheduled retrial, Peterson submitted an Alford plea to a reduced charge of manslaughter. The plea deal acknowledged that there was likely enough evidence to convict him at trial, while still allowing him to maintain his innocence. He was sentenced to time served and was released.

"The Staircase," a 2004 docuseries chronicled the case and Peterson's efforts to appeal his conviction. The series was updated with new episodes in 2018, which captured the resolution to the court battle. Black died not long after the 2018 update — which included some of her courtroom speeches during the trial — became a hit. 

Black was found dead inside her home in Durham during a welfare check in 2018 after loved ones lost contact with her; she was found deceased on her living room couch, WNCN reported in 2019.  Her death was not considered suspicious.

An autopsy report released in 2019 revealed that she died of end-stage liver disease due to chronic alcoholism. 

She was 57 years old.

“The floor of the home was cluttered with food, wine bottles, and trash. There was no evidence of forced entry, theft, or visible wounds at the scene,” the autopsy report stated. “Recent social stressors included financial difficulties. The decedent’s past medical history was significant for chronic alcoholism and hypertension. Although there were concerns for self-harm given the text and items at the scene laid out that the decedent may consider valuable, no toxicologic or other self-harm cause of death was detected.”

Black had struggled with alcohol abuse for many years. She was charged with DUI twice — once in 2012 and once in 2015 — WTVD reported in 2015. During the latter incident, she was also charged with damage to personal property.

She worked as assistant prosecutor for Durham County from 1991 to 2005.

“In addition to her passion for practicing law, Ms. Black was a talented musician and shared her talents as organist, pianist, soloist and church choir member in many churches throughout her life,” her obituary stated.

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