Sunday, May 22, 2011

Netflix This:

The Staircase
     How do we really know is someone is guilty or innocent of a murder when looking at a blood-filled crime scene, if evidence does not exist? What if there was no murder weapon? Is it time to reexamine our justice system? Is it time to reexamine the faith we put in the intelligence of a random jury to come to the correct conclusions? These are just a few of the questions that are raised in this intense and immensely entertaining documentary. The Staircase, consisting of eight 45-minute episodes (a commitment, I know), is one my best Netflix finds in a very long time. Directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (who won an Oscar for best documentary in 2001), the film follows the life and murder trial of author Michael Peterson, who in 2001 called 911 and hysterically screamed that his wife Kathleen had fallen down the stairs.
     To fully immerse yourself in The Staircase, it's best not to know too much about the specifics of the trial and absolutely incredible information, finds, and coincidences that happen throughout the long process of the investigation. So I will avoid too much information here, and if you're interested in seeing the 6-hour documentary, avoid information about it everywhere. A 6-hour documentary about the mysteries and suspicions of a man tried for murder may not seem like that great of a time, but you would be wrong. The Staircase's 6 hours were culled from 300 total hours of footage and basically offers a full purview of the defense's preparations and intricate strategies in defending Michael Peterson. It also shows the influence of the press in regards to their biased opinions on aspects of the trial.
     It's pertinent to know the basics: Michael Peterson calls 911. His wife has supposedly fallen down the stairs. Her blood alcohol content is .07, and she also has Valium in her system. The problem, as you can see in the picture to the left, is the severe injuries that Peterson's wife sustained in the supposed fall (and yes, the film does show every aspect of the trial, including graphic crime scene and autopsy photos of Kathleen). She has a fracture of the thyroid neck cartilage and extremely severe lacerations on the top of her head. Much of the film deals with the competing conclusions from two separate blood pattern analysts. (Where's Dexter when you need him?) Obviously, the prosecution uses the vivid and graphic images of the injures and poses the question, how could these injuries be from a fall down the stairs? The defense's opinion is the she fell backwards coming up the turn in the stairs and repeatedly continues to fall while slipping on her own blood. Michael Peterson has no blood splatter on his clothing, there is no cast-off  blood from swinging a weapon up and down or side to side, and there is no murder weapon to be found. As I stated before, these are just the basics. Numerous insane happenings and coincidences dig the mystery deeper and deeper, and they involve the the home life of Peterson and their many children, the missing murder weapon, the questionable motives and sexuality of the people involved, and another similar death that turns the case on its head. By the time Episode 8 starts (titled "The Verdict"), your nerves will be on edge, whether you think that Peterson is guilty or not. Above all, it's about a case that goes far beyond whether a man killed his wife on a narrow and dark stairwell, and it rises to a war between the defense and prosecution and the truths and lies they use to influence a jury.

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