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What Netflix’s True-Crime Doc ‘The Staircase’ Can Teach Us About Justice


Netflix has been slowly coming under criticism for very hit and miss productions. But so far their documentary series have set the bar for true-crime storytelling today.

It all started with “The Making of a Murderer,” and the poetic zenith was probably “The Keepers.” But now “The Staircase” gets to finish a story that seemed told back in 2004. Director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade had added more to this documentary over the intervening years but now on Netflix three more episodes finally conclude the Michael Peterson murder trial.

This new conclusion provides few answers. I’ll avoid dramatic spoilers, but there are some amazing twists and turns along the way.

This epic tragic story starts on December 9, 2001, with the unexplained death of Kathleen Peterson. It ends on February 17, 2017 with her husband Michael’s Alford plea. An Alford plea allows the defendant to enter an official guilty plea and accept its consequences while maintaining innocence of the crime.

The Petersons seemed like a perfect couple to their children and community. But when Kathleen dies, everything about them becomes questioned. Her last breaths were taken at the bottom of a staircase, so it’s possible that she simply fell. But the large amount of blood and damage done to her body looks suspicious.

After a lengthy trial, Michael is convicted of murder and goes to prison. But he always maintained his innocence. Even when submitting an Alford plea of guilty to first-degree manslaughter, he never admitted to any guilt regarding killing Kathleen.

The Film Style Is Different But Gets Boring

Differently than other docu-series, this is essentially a blow-by-blow of the events while they happened. There’s no recreations. It’s almost entirely filmed while the events of the trial are ongoing or simply verbal testimony from the people involved. And it’s pretty much warts and all. The filmmakers seem to not attempt to cast anyone in a particularly positive or negative light. The persons involved are simply allowed to speak. When they look bad, it’s on them, and vice versa.

This also means that it isn’t always interesting. Lestrade might channel Werner Herzog and say something very film schoolish and pretentious in response to that, such as: “The the human condition in its raw form is the most interesting thing imaginable,” or “Your bourgeois values make you the boring one!”

Or he might say something more interesting, which would reflect the quality of what he has managed to produce. Perhaps his desire was not to entertain but to honestly examine these events. If this was his intent, of course these people will not always be interesting to watch and listen to.

That is what he has done. In many ways, this is a reality TV drama, which is a spin-off genre from traditional documentaries. The traditional doc uses a semblance of reality to tell a story in something approaching or intending to seem real. Reality TV is inherently about attention-getting and -keeping. But most docs come about after the fact, or document the condition of something rather than events as they unfold. Reality TV ostensibly covers what actually happens.

How Objective Can Film Really Be?

Guilty or not, Michael Peterson gave a great gift when he allowed Lestrade essentially full access to his life. This was probably calculated to some point. Perhaps they thought it would help acquit Peterson or sustain his credibility as a novelist. But it’s hard to believe Peterson would have let the filmmakers in if he thought a documentary would harm the case in the slightest.

That is potentially the insidious part of all this. Lestrade seems to be as objective a documentarian as he can. But how objective can film be? Early philosophers of film happened to be Kantians. To them, the human mind experiences the world indirectly through filters of meaning. They claim that direct knowledge of the external world in its actual nature isn’t possible.

In film these philosophers saw a further metaphor for this way of thinking. Film is fundamentally a lie that can convey truth. It seems to be a continuous objective record of the external world, but it is not.

Film is a constructed reality. It gives no steady stream but tiny chunks that are stitched together to form what only appears to be a continuous narrative. Traditional 35mm film creates the image you see at 24 frames per second. That means there are 24 pieces to every moment of a film. Every moment of a film is a montage.

That is by definition an illusion. You are not seeing the thing as it is, but rather the effect it produces. Of course, you don’t see the frames in isolation. The filmmaker didn’t produce it frame by frame, either, but as a reality he manufactured to be caught on camera.

So if film itself is an illusion, then how much more illusory is a film that purports to document reality instead of create a fiction? After all, Michael Moore seems to believe his films document the world as it is (a claim that is, to put it politely, unsustainable).

None of this is helped by the advent of digital film. At least actual light actually affects traditional film. It gives evidence of an event. But digital film is an interpretation of light based on the information the sensors capture. That sounds like it should be more objective, but it actually exacerbates the montage problem, because each frame is constructed of pixels. If traditional film is a quilt, digital film is a quilt in which each patch is a quilt as well.

Who Is Documenting and Who Is Fabricating?

None of the mediums through which humans communicate are perfect. They are imprecise contrivances that must follow strict syntax to convey their meanings. Film is no different. So, did Lestrade portray this story objectively? We can’t really know, just like nobody except Mike Peterson knows exactly what happened the night his wife died.

If Lestrade is taking us for a ride, then his veneer of objectivity is deeply insidious.

But if Lestrade is taking us for a ride, then his veneer of objectivity is deeply insidious. Nobody thinks “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” reflects anything resembling reality (or at least I hope no one thinks that). But “The Staircase” does seem to be documenting reality, and is more important now than it was in 2004, just like the Duke lacrosse case of 2006 is more important as well.

That case involved several members of the men’s lacrosse team being falsely accused of rape. The story was brilliantly told in the “30 for 30: Fantastic Lies.” Greg Taylor’s exoneration for murder based on problems with blood evidence partially led to Peterson’s freedom, too, because the same police department and forensic experts apparently mishandled both cases’ evidence.

Taylor was convicted of murder in 1991 and eventually exonerated in 2010. The excellent podcast “Actual Innocence” let Taylor tell his story. These cases are all relevant to the Me Too world, and surprisingly connected to the same police department: Durham County.

There are loads of differences between the cases, but what they have in common is convicting white men of crimes against women based on scanty evidence. The cases also have essentially “happy” but tragic endings for the accused.

Justice Isn’t Getting What You Wanted

They also reveal Americans’ common naiveté about the justice system. When decisions don’t go the way we want, people often find themselves in an existential crisis over whether the system works. But the system shouldn’t be tested by how well it works, but whether its fundamental pillars are philosophically durable. Is our system built fundamentally on wisdom or folly?

The system shouldn’t be tested by how well it works, but whether its fundamental pillars are philosophically durable.

That is rarely the question people ask when they get an undesired result. The response virtually always falls along the same lines: I don’t believe in the system anymore, and we need reform. Actual reforms are rarely mentioned, because if the desired outcome had occurred they wouldn’t be asking the question at all.

Such people don’t have a rational relationship with the system, but a religious one. It’s something they have put their faith in. But the most perfect system can always be undone by bad actors. In our system it’s hard for bad actors to flourish without help. That isn’t the fault of the system, it’s the fault of people who choose to do evil.

The system is entirely based around the idea that a naive justice system can easily be used for injustice. The least naive and most fundamental part of our system is that we would rather protect the guilty than persecute the innocent. This is an admission that the state’s monopoly on violence is far from divine. The exact opposite is true. Power will more than likely be misused.

This kind of system should have protected Michael Peterson and Taylor, even with the bad actors within the Durham Police Department. The jury should not have returned a guilty verdict in either case from the very beginning. “Junk science” and perjury from State Bureau of Investigation analyst Duane Deaver seems to be the ultimate culprit in both cases.

Both juries should have had serious reasonable doubts about the guilt of these men, but they didn’t because they trusted what “science” supposedly had to say. Yet neither case had a clear or strong motive for the murder, and without a clear motive you should have considerable doubts. The prosecution should have to provide overwhelming evidence without a motive. An overreliance upon fallible expert opinion has harmed our system.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty Needs To Be Revived

Today we are far too willing to believe any accusation. We have become predisposed to the idea of guilty before proven innocent, which is the inverse of what we’re supposed to be. Instead of being predisposed to science, we should be predisposed to skepticism, especially when someone’s life is on the line.

The sad truth is we get the society we deserve, and by extension the juries we deserve.

I’m not convinced that Peterson is innocent, and don’t think this doc tries to make the case that he is. It leaves room for reasonable doubts. But thankfully our legal system doesn’t require that you be proven innocent. It requires that you be proven guilty. The state didn’t even come close to doing that with Peterson. That jury was simply wrong.

This is the dilemma of living in a Me Too world. It explains why these cautionary tales are more important than ever. We’ve become primed to believe every purported victim. Now, the court of public opinion isn’t ruled by the same principles as the legal system, but it should be ruled by charity and graciousness. It should be open to the stories of victims but with the corollary that every story has multiple sides.

The sad truth is we get the society we deserve, and by extension the juries we deserve. We all need to be a bit more skeptical and more charitable. Many have said that conservatives have hard hearts and hard heads, while leftists have soft hearts and soft heads. We really need is hard heads and soft hearts.

That fundamental principle should govern juries of every sort. Charity and skepticism should balance and inform each other. This is the lesson we must learn from these stories of men whom were treated unfairly by our system of justice, and of women who claim to be wronged by men. These Netflix docuseries are an amazing place to create space for these most important of conversations.