Thoughts on ‘The Staircase’

‘The Staircase’ is the series-length true-crime documentary series that started that wholesome genre, way back in 2004. It follows the case of Michael Peterson, an American military veteran and war novelist who faced trial in 2003 in North Carolina for the murder of his wife. He says he found her unconscious and covered in blood at the bottom of a staircase in their home. The prosecution claimed he had killed her by hitting her in the head with a fireplace tool.

There are many odd things about this series. First, it was made by a French director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, for Canal+ in France, where the first episodes were broadcast. How and why a French director got interested in an American criminal case must be an interesting story. Second, the series is still going on: de Lestrade has followed all of the twists and turns in the appeals of the case up to even 2017, and has kept adding to the original episodes, which were filmed in 2003.

The result is a gripping portrayal of American criminal justice system, and I say that as a former American criminal-defense attorney. It shows the system almost in its ideal form Peterson had money, and bought a team of fabulous lawyers and investigators and experts. In fact, we see discussions of how much this defense is costing him — the fee was ultimately somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars. This allowed the defense to chase down every single piece of evidence imaginable, and attack the state’s case from every possible vantage point.

And we see exactly how they did it. That’s another startling thing: de Lestrade gets complete access to the defense team and even Peterson’s home and family. We see his lawyers discussing very sensitive stuff with their client (such as fees) which had my lawyer-confidentiality alarm blaring at deafening levels. This extreme level of disclosure could only have been authorized by a direct order from Peterson himself to let it all hang out.

Which, as the film proceeds, you realize is something he would do. He’s smart, articulate, and something of a drama queen (it turns out he’s bisexual, and occasionally visited male prostitutes, a fact which comes out at trial). He says he’s innocent and has nothing to hide, and this seems credible, even if his protestations of innocence — and basically everything else he does — appear a tad histrionic and calculated. He’s also intensely self-aware; he understands how some of his actions and statements must look to the jury, and even ruminates, before the camera, about how the justice system must treat people who, unlike him, have to rely on public defenders. (The answer is: not well).

The lead lawyer, David Rudolf, is also sharp as a tack. He has the typical trial-lawyer blend of agile intelligence, worldly wisdom, and total partisanship for his client. He is obviously having a ball — finally, he’s got a client who’s smart, didn’t leave incriminating evidence or talk to the cops, and who can pay for him to prepare the case of his dreams.

Rudolf also gets to parade his forensic skills before an audience of millions. He speaks in complete paragraphs, without ‘uhs’ or ‘ahs’, and with plenty of wry jokes and clever turns of phrase. (Yet he’s too good for his own good: some members of the jury find him too slick — which, in North Carolina, probably includes an element of too Jewish). His opening statement is soulful, his cross-examinations pointed without being snotty, and his tactical know-how formidable. In one conversation, he manages to dissuade Michael Peterson from testifying on his own behalf (always a bad idea, for reasons many clients don’t understand) while making it seem as if this were Peterson’s own idea. We see Rudolf and his team grapple with the hundreds of strategic and tactical decisions needed to prepare a complex legal defense. My favorite bit is the day before trial, when Rudolf is telling Peterson how to behave in front of the jury (don’t look bored, don’t look at the jury, don’t laugh) and reminds him to trim his giant, furry eyebrows.

One thing that always strikes me is why all these documentaries are made in the United States (or, rarely, the UK), never in France or Germany. German and French documentary producers seem to lack any curiosity at all about how their own justice systems operate, although they’re more than happy to shoot thousands of hours of footage about how the American justice system works. Even when German TV producers do address the justice system, they ignore the actual rules which govern it and focus all their attention on the sort of stuff they talked about in their college journalism or philosophy seminars (the nature of guilt, man’s inhumanity to man, the position of minorities, the cold logic of capitalism, etc.). They never get the legal stuff even close to right — they don’t even try. Every German crime show is a parade of laughable legal howlers.

Europeans seem to believe that actually addressing the rules of evidence or burdens of proof or expert opinion about blood spatters in a halfway realistic way would be too boring and technical. Of course, they’ve got it backward: moralizing, didactic screenplays drawn from college-dorm bullshit sessions quickly get stale, while shows that feature genuine people mastering complex tasks under real-world conditions have an enduring and universal appeal, even if the jobs themselves are highly specific to one culture. Which is why tens of thousands of German and French people will be mesmerized by The Staircase, while nobody in the UK or the US has heard of Tatort.

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on ‘The Staircase’

  1. Agree that German TV is horrible at accurately portraying the proceedings of criminal law in our country, Der Tatort perhaps being the worst offender here among many. The system actually works much better in practice than our media would have you believe on a daily basis (which is not to say that all is good and perfect, of course).

    However, I can’t help but wonder on occasion about the wisdom of the American system, at least as I’m seeing it portrayed on TV regularly – which I can only hope is, just like its German counterpart, fictionalized beyond recognition for entertainment purposes.

    For how could it be fair (in the sense of „due process“) that it would be almost entirely the defense attorney’s job to run around like a detective and collect bits and pieces of evidence that might exonerate his defendant, while the prosecutors with all the institutional weight behind them get to fixate on one suspect alone very early on, and do the best they can to build a so-called „strong case“ against him, while apparently being incentivized to disregard anything that might lead to his acquittal in the process?

    And how could it be even remotely fair that your chances in trial end up being a matter of your own resources in standing up against an adversary who is – by design, and not by accident! – inherently biased against you, and of how successful you are in presenting a credible counter-narrative to the deliberately one-sided narrative that the prosecution is building against you? In the end, isn’t that just a variation of capitalism run wild?

    For what it’s worth, my own hunch is that as a matter of justice, criminal trials shouldn’t be about the prosecution building a „strong case“ against you in the first place, but about them having to ascertain the objective facts as they are, or at any rate the best possible approximation thereof. Or to put it differently: Given the choice of where I’d rather face prosecution, I would at any moment in time prefer the country that has something like our good old § 160 II StPO in place: „Die Staatsanwaltschaft hat nicht nur die zur Belastung, sondern auch die zur Entlastung dienenden Umstände zu ermitteln […].“

    Sorry for venting. As you can probably tell, I’ve been watching far too much of The Good Wife lately. I sure hope I’m getting much of this wrong!

  2. In Australia, we have, as I understand, a system inherited from the British. What strikes me when watching American legal/prison/policing type shows is how media related the process is. I am no lawyer, but as I understand it, public remonstrations in our system are considered prejudicial to the process. Therefore, we receive news coverage of unresolved legal issues from the USA which is far more partisan than we would ever receive of our own legal issues (until of course, after the event when nobody cares anyway).

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