'The Staircase': Where Are Michael Peterson and His Family Now?
Where are the real-life people of 'The Staircase' now?
Whenever a movie or TV series based on real-life events comes out, viewers are plagued by two unavoidable questions: how much of what we saw is true and what happened to those characters after the cameras were turned off? HBO Max’s true crime drama The Staircaseis no exception to this rule. Created by Antonio Campos, the eight-episode long miniseries stars Colin Firth and Toni Collette as novelist Michael Peterson and his second wife, Nortel executive, Kathleen Peterson. In 2001, Kathleen died on the staircase of the Peterson home in Durham, North Carolina. Despite claiming his wife had fallen down the stairs, Michael Peterson was charged with her murder and convicted to life imprisonment in 2003 after one of the longest trials in North Carolina’s history.
The Staircase follows Michael’s more than a decade-long legal battle toward freedom and paints a portrait of the Peterson family both before and after Kathleen’s death. It also chronicles the work of French documentarist Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, who, from 2003 to 2018, worked on a docuseries about the case also titled The Staircase. Lestrade’s documentary played an important part in the Peterson affair and served as the main inspiration for Campos’ show.
In the final episode of the miniseries, we see Michael Peterson starting to get his life back on track as a free man. But what happened to him after he took that Alford plea in 2017? And what about all the other characters that were so important to the story? Here’s what went on in their lives after the events portrayed in The Staircase.
Sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Kathleen Peterson, Michael was granted a new trial in 2011 when it was brought to light that a key prosecution witness had given misleading information under oath. Blood-spatter analyst Duane Deaver (Myke Holmes) was found to have exaggerated his credentials in the field of forensic investigation. Since Deaver’s testimony was what eventually led the jury to agree upon Michael’s guilt, the writer was released in 2011 under a $300,000 bail and placed under house arrest. As shown in the miniseries, Michael took the Alford plea in 2017 and was convicted of voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to seven years and a month in prison, but got out right away having already served eight years after his first trial.
After breaking up with Sophie (Juliette Binoche) and refusing to move to Paris, Michael went to live with his ex-wife Patty (Trini Alvarado). Now 78 years old, he lives alone in a ground-floor apartment in Durham, North Carolina, and has since sold the house he shared with Kathleen. He got back to writing and released two books telling his side of the story: 2019’s Behind the Staircase and 2020’s Beyond the Staircase. Since Michael can’t profit from his crime, the proceeds from the books’ sales go to charity. Michael Peterson has mostly stayed out of the spotlight. He was less than pleased with the HBO Max miniseries and claimed to feel betrayed by documentarist Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. In a series of emails to Variety, he accused Lestrade of pimping him and his family out.
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Played by Patrick Schwarzenegger, Michael’s son stood by his father's side throughout every twist and turn of the case. In The Staircase, he is shown to have lived in Mexico for a while and was Michael’s go-to for the most part of the affair. Nowadays, he lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, from there he runs his asset management company, America Industries. Much like his character in The Staircase, Todd cultivates a social media presence, especially on Instagram, where he has spoken about the HBO Max miniseries, calling showrunner Antonio Campos “evil”.
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As shown in the miniseries, Clayton Peterson (Dane DeHaan) served four years in prison for an attempted bombing at Duke University years before Kathleen Peterson’s death. His character in the show is a troubled young man who decides to turn his life around. And, from what it seems, things have turned out for the best for the real Clayton. He currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where he works as an engineer. He’s still married to Becky (Hannah Pniewski), with whom he has two children.
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Played by Sophie Turner, Margaret is the eldest daughter of Air Force captain George Ratliff and his wife, Elizabeth, who lived next door to Michael and Patty Peterson in Germany. Soon after George’s death in an overseas operation, in 1983, Elizabeth lost her life in circumstances so similar to Katherine’s death that her body was exhumed during Michael’s trial in search of evidence of foul play.
Following Elizabeth’s death, Margaret and her younger sister Martha (Odessa Young) were adopted by the Petersons. After Michael and Patty’s divorce, they went to live with Michael and Kathleen, whom they called mom, in the United States. Nowadays, Margaret lives in California and works in the entertainment industry as an actor, an assistant director, and a production manager, among other things.
Margaret’s baby sister Martha was revealed to have suffered a lot after the loss of her birth mother. In the miniseries, she is shown to have a somewhat fraught relationship with her adoptive father. Still, she remains by his side, just like Margaret. Martha suffered from severe anxiety after Kathleen’s death and during Michael’s long and public battle against the justice system. She speaks about her mental health issues in de Lestrade's docuseries. Currently living in Colorado, Martha works as a psychotherapist, helping people that suffer from the same problems that afflicted her.
Portrayed by Olivia DeJonge, Caitlin was Kathleen’s only biological child and the sole child from the Peterson household to believe that Michael was responsible for her mother’s death. Still estranged from her step-siblings, she currently lives with her husband and twin children in Virginia. In 2002, Caitlin filed a civil wrongful death lawsuit against Michael. They settled in 2007 for $25 million, but it is possible that Michael never paid the full amount considering how much strain the trial put on his finances. Caitlin’s lawyer filed another complaint against him after his release, in 2017, in order to discourage him from making money from the case.
Sophie and Michael were together from 2004 to 2017. However, Brunet claims to have waited until she was finished with the eight original episodes of The Staircase before sending her first letter to Peterson. She didn’t like the idea of being a character in Campos’ miniseries and felt betrayed by the showrunner. Still, she agreed to meet with Juliette Binoche and told Vanity Fair that her relationship with the actress was “an unexpected happy ending to my painful story”.
Brunet still works as a film and TV editor in France. Her partnership with de Lestrade is still going strong, with Brunet having edited his two TV series after The Staircase, true crime drama Laëtitia and political thriller Jeux d’Influence.
Still married to journalist Sonya Pfeiffer (Teri Wyble), defense attorney David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg) relocated to Toronto in 2021, where he works for litigation and corporate law firm Brauti Thorning LLP. He is, however, still connected with his own firm, Rudolf Widenhouse. Alongside Pfeiffer, Rudolf is the owner of the Elder Gallery of Contemporary Art, in Charlotte, North Carolina. The couple also hosts a podcast together, Abuse of Power, which focuses on stories of people victimized by the justice system. The topic is also at the center of Rudolf’s 2022 book, American Injustice: Inside Stories from the Underbelly of the Criminal Justice System.
Played by Vincent Vermignon, de Lestrade was already an Academy Award winner when he got involved with Michael Peterson’s case. In 2002, his film Murder on a Sunday Morning, about the wrongful accusation of a Black teenager for the murder of a tourist in Jacksonville, Florida, took home the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. With The Staircase, de Lestrade embarked on a project that took him 15 years to finish, with the final episodes of the documentary coming out only in 2018. However, de Lestrade’s involvement with the Peterson story didn’t end there, as he was the one to sell the story to Campos. Much like Peterson and Brunet, he was also not happy with the fictional adaptation of his docuseries and claimed that Campos misinterpreted facts in a way that paints him as an unethical filmmaker.
As shown in the HBO Max miniseries, de Lestrade went into fiction after working on The Staircase. Since the release of the docuseries’ three final episodes, he has directed two fictional series in France. 2020’s Laëtitia is a true crime drama about the 2011 abduction of 18-year-old Laëtitia Perrais. The political thriller Jeux d’Influence had two seasons released between 2018 and 2022 in the European streaming service Arte.
Despite not being an official member of the defense team, Bill Peterson (Tim Guinee) played a huge role in getting his brother Michael out of jail. A lawyer himself, Bill was the one that suggested Rudolf as a defense attorney and took care of most of the Petersons’ legal matters. After Michael’s release, Bill moved back to Reno, Nevada, where he lives with his family and works as a practicing partner in a full-service local firm.
In The Staircase, Patty (Trini Alvarado) is shown to have a friendly partnership with her ex-husband. In real life, not only did she stand by his side throughout the trials, she also took him in after his release. They lived together in Durham up until Patty’s death from a heart attack, in 2021.
The most vocal of Kathleen’s sisters, Candace (Rosemarie DeWitt) was the one to present the prosecution with the alleged murder weapon, a fireplace poker, or blow poke, that she had given the Petersons for Christmas. Nowadays, she prefers to stay away from the spotlight, living a quiet life in Alexandria, Virgnia.
At the time of Kathleen’s death, Deaver worked as a blood spatter analyst for the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI). During Peterson’s trial, he testified that the blood spatters surrounding the spot in which Kathleen had died were consistent with a person being beaten to death. He also stated that he had worked on 500 bloodstain cases.
Deaver’s ethics and expertise were first put into question regarding the wrongful conviction of Greg Taylor, in 1993, for the murder of Jacquetta Thomas. It soon came to light that not only had Deaver exaggerated the number of cases in which he had worked, he also had no proper forensics training and was guilty of lab misconduct. He was fired from his job in 2011. He tried to fight it, but his firing was upheld in court in 2014. Still, in the same year, the North Carolina Human Resources Commission ruled that he should have merely been demoted from his position and that the SBI owed him 34 months of wages.
As shown in the miniseries, Assistant District Attorney Freda Black (Parker Posey) quit law and started working as a cleaner in the decade following Michael’s conviction. Before that, she ran twice for District Attorney, in 2006 and 2008, but never got the job. She also campaigned for the Durham County District Court, to no avail. Black died in 2018, at age 57 of end-stage liver disease.