Ten years ago, Death on the Staircase aka The Staircase, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s crime-doc epic, came out. It followed, with curves and curlicues and jigs and jags, the defence of Michael Peterson, accused of murdering his wife Kathleen, found at the foot of a staircase in their Durham, NC mansion in December 2001. Lestrade’s access to the family was astonishing—interviews, trial coverage and around 600 hours of total footage. The twists and turns—sexual revelations, a similar death in Peterson’s past, a missing weapon—were stranger than fiction (Peterson had been a novelist). It was the best film I saw in 2005, an utterly engrossing thriller about a man who faces a life sentence, a grief-stricken family divided (Kathleen’s daughter decides Michael is guilty), and a horribly flawed trial-by-jury justice system which pretends to be insulated from cultural and social biases.
Last year, less a pseudo-sequel than a near-coda, The Staircase: Last Chance—or The Staircase 2—was released. It’s two hours, though a 90-minute cut was shown on CBC (which aired The Staircase nearly a decade ago) and can still be seen there online. It does recap some of the key moments of the 2003 trial, though it can’t substitute for the full, elaborate drama of its predecessor. Still, this doc appalls in its presentation of the sheer incompetence of one “expert” and builds that rare feeling—of watching and waiting to see if, just maybe, a victim of injustice will be released from a virtual death-sentence. (In 2001, de Lestrade won an Oscar for his documentary Murder on a Sunday Morning, about a black Florida teen who almost went to jail for a murder he was blocks away from, but the French director’s now offered one of the great American documentaries of the wrongfully accused, ranking up there with The Trials of Darryl Hunt and the Paradise Lost series about the West Memphis Three.) And what else emerges are people trapped within themselves—imprisoned by their own suffering and ways of coping with suffering—but also a portrait of one man all-too-aware of love and its pain.
The “last chance” of the subtitle comes from the mouth of David Rudolf, one of Peterson’s original lawyers, back again to demand a new trial in the wake of revelations that a heavily-relied-upon State Bureau of Investigation blood-spatter analyst in court in 2003 gave false testimony and offered invalid, unscientific results to the jury. The case of Greg Taylor, a North Carolina man in jail for 17 years for murder, was thrown out after the testimony and work of that analyst, Duane Deaver, was found to be spurious. Taylor’s release—he’s interviewed here—bleeds through de Lestrade’s follow-up, adding to the anticipation that Peterson, too, will find himself free at last.
Peterson is notably feebler and more soft-spoken. He talks of locking up his emotions for the last eight years; Rudolf talks of wanting the weight of his greatest “professional disappointment”—Peterson’s conviction—lifted. Everyone here—even Kathleen’s daughter, notable in her absence—is locked into necessary prisons of the self … their own particular ways of coping, seeing and needing. Peterson says it’s impossible for anyone to know, or for him to explain, what it’s like to be in jail for almost 3000 days. Yet he still talks of love—for his late wife, for his children, and of the love they give back to him. That is what (perhaps all that) seems to keep him going, even though the pain of grief, it’s clear in the last shot, is tangled up forever now in his love for the woman he remains accused of killing for more a dozen years and counting. V