In the original eight episodes of “The Staircase” from 2005, director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade shot, edited and structured the true crime story like a thrilling mystery. Each episode reveals new details and a fuller perspective of the events surrounding Kathleen Peterson’s death, as we inch closer – or at least, as a viewer, it feels like we are inching closer – to knowing if her husband Michael killed her. In many ways, Lestrade created a series in which the viewer experiences the murder mystery documentary in much the way he did while filming it.
“I was really obsessed by what happened in that staircase that night, and I was sure that in the end of the shooting, spending nearly two years with my participant’s family, I would have an answer to what happened,” said Lestrade in an interview with IndieWire. “I didn’t get the answer. And I was very frustrated, and I’d get obsessed [for] many years by what happened. What happened?”
Lestrade’s obsession with the case meant that as a filmmaker he was committed to seeing the case through until the legal process had concluded – the French director has returned to North Carolina to film two sequels, including three new chapters that were released on Netflix this past weekend – but somewhere along the way, his burning desire to know if Peterson is guilty faded.
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“I can’t have a clear answer, and maybe I will have to live with that mystery all my life, and that was a strong frustration, but now, either way, I don’t care,” said Lestrade. “Maybe the main lesson as a human being I’ve learned in [this] experience is that there is a mystery in every human being. And some of the people the mystery’s very little, and some others the mystery may be a big mystery, and you have to accept that and you have to accept that even maybe with the people you live with, your partner in life, your career at work, they all have something – not something to hide, but something that you won’t access.”
Lestrade said there wasn’t one specific moment where he came to peace with the fact that after gaining unprecedented access – literally thousands of hours to Peterson and his lawyers – he would never know if his subject killed his wife. As a filmmaker, there was a clear shift in his interest in the case, and he became fascinated with the American judicial system. While Lestrade has reasonable doubts about Peterson’s guilt, he was convinced his murder conviction was bogus.
“He may have killed Kathleen, I don’t know and I don’t say he did nothing, but for sure what I really know is that the first verdict was unfair,” said Lestrade. “He should not have been found guilty in the first trial, and the prosecution didn’t play by the rules. [The prosecution’s chief witness] lied, their medical examiner was unfair, and so to me, the goal was to follow the case and the judicial process itself.”
In 2012, a judge came to a similar conclusion; Peterson was released from jail, pending a retrial. The three new episodes of “The Staircase” focus on what would seem on the surface to be far lower stakes: Peterson will either plead guilty to avoid a retrial and stay out of prison, or the prosecution will buckle and allow him to enter what is known as a Alford plea — meaning, a guilty plea in criminal court, but the defendant does not admit to the crime and asserts innocence. It’s an excruciating decision for Peterson, now in his seventies and getting reacquainted with his family, and one Lestrade found fascinating.
“It was very interesting to follow this very narrow path where the D.A. didn’t really want another trial, but they really wanted a conviction, and the defense didn’t really want another trial, but not to say ‘guilty,'” said Lestrade. “It’s a very amazing [conclusion] because there’s nothing to do with the truth at some point, and that may be a big lesson over 17 years of the system of justice system – to say the answer has nothing to do with the truth, because we have someone found guilty, convicted, and will say, ‘I’m not guilty.'”
All 13 episodes of “The Staircase” – including the original eight episodes from 2005, the 2013 two-part sequel and the three new episodes – are available on Netflix now.