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Very interesting documentary.

I am wondering how the defense can explain the
amount of blood at the scene of the accident.[/spolier].

`Staircase' catches the ups and downs of real murder case

By Maureen Ryan
Tribune staff reporter
Published April 4, 2005

The most compelling murder mystery of the year is not on one of the three "CSIs," the four versions of "Law & Order" or any of their innumerable clones.

The one flaw of the gripping true-crime tale "The Staircase" (8 p.m. Monday) is that it's only available on the upstart Sundance Channel; one wishes that it was as widely available as "CSI." It's that good.

And it proves that truth is often stranger -- and even more compelling -- than fiction.

The eight-installment documentary, which airs over four Mondays, unfolds at first like a suspenseful beach read: A wealthy novelist's wife, who happens to be a successful telecom executive, is found nearly dead at the bottom of the stairs in the family's showcase home in a leafy enclave of Durham, N.C.

Having sustained several nasty gashes to the head, she expires before help arrives.

The husband, Michael Peterson, says his wife, Kathleen, took a tumble on the kitchen stairs as he sipped a glass of wine near the family pool; the police take a different view of things and charge him with murder soon after Kathleen's December 2001 death.

In the supple hands of director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, this John Grisham-esque tale soon recalls the award-winning documentary "Capturing the Friedmans." De Lestrade arrived in North Carolina soon after Michael Peterson was charged, and his cameras were on the scene for every legal strategy session and every revelation. He interviewed all the parties in the case and he also captured the small and large ways in which the lives of the blended family Kathleen Peterson left behind began to unravel and fray.

And speaking of revelations, there are plenty. It almost goes without saying that Michael Peterson wasn't entirely what he seemed; after his wife's death, the things that came to light about him made his chances at trial look grim indeed. But in this carefully paced film, the director, who won an Oscar for the documentary "Murder on a Sunday Morning," seems to be asking, "Are any of us entirely what we seem? And who can truly see into the heart -- or the motives -- of another?"

The circumstances of Kathleen's death do seem rather odd, but then again, the lip of an assistant district attorney actually curls when she discusses the details of Michael's personal life (to say more about that topic would ruin one of the film's most intriguing revelations). As Michael's defense is carefully (and expensively) assembled, one wonders if Durham officials had a grudge against the outspoken, emotional author, given his unusual private life and his journalistic crusades against incompetence in local government.

"The Staircase" doesn't need flashy editing or forced melodrama to keep the audience's interest (though it should be noted that there are some brief shots of grisly crime-scene photos; this documentary is definitely for mature viewers). And the strained looks on the faces of the Peterson family keep reminding the viewer that all of this really happened. But the documentary keeps adding layers of complexity to the tale until one is entirely hooked by its ambiguities and twists and turns -- and soon, as with a great novel, one can't wait to see what happens next.
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