Skip to main contentSkip to footer

The Staircase: the true story behind Colin Firth's new crime drama

Find out where Michael Peterson is now...

the staircase true story
Eve Crosbie
Eve CrosbieTV & Film Writer
Share this:

Colin Firth is set to make his long-awaited return to television with the release of true-crime drama The Staircase on Thursday - and we couldn't be more excited to see him grace our screens.

MORE: The chilling true story behind FX's Under the Banner of Heaven

In the new HBO/ Sky drama, the Oscar winner will star as novelist Michael Peterson, who became embroiled in one of America's most famous - and debated - murder cases. Want to know more? Keep reading for the stranger-than-fiction true story behind The Staircase…

WATCH: Will you be watching The Staircase?

True-crime fanatics will be familiar with the story as not only has it been covered by a number of podcasts, but it was also the subject of a 13-part documentary, but for the uninitiated, here's the lowdown.

MORE: Olivia Colman and Colin Firth are joining forces for a new film - and it sounds Oscar-worthy

MORE: True-crime fans won't want to miss Netflix's wild new documentary Our Father - get the details

How did Michael's wife Kathleen Peterson die?

On December 9, 2001, Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the bottom of the staircase in the 11,000-square-foot North Carolina home she shared with her husband, Michael.

While Michael insisted that he was outside in the garden when she fell, the police found the circumstances surrounding Kathleen's death suspicious (a forensic analysis showed that she had been alive for several hours after her death) and so arrested Michael.

michael peterson© Photo: Rex

Michael has been on trial twice for the death of his wife

His trial began in 2003 and it was around this time that a documentary crew led by French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade began following the case. The resulting 13-episode docuseries gained a cult following thanks to its surprising twists and bizarre theories proposed by Michael's defence team (ahem, the Owl Theory).

The Staircase 1© Photo: Sky

Colin Firth plays Michael in the new drama alongside Toni Collette

In 2011, Michael was given a new trial when the judge ruled that a key witness had given misleading testimony. The trial lasted a number of years, and during this time, Michael was put under house arrest. In 2017,16, years after the death of Kathleen, Michael submitted an Alford plea to the reduced charge of manslaughter. As a result, he was sentenced to time already served and freed.

MORE: 7 best crime documentaries on Netflix that are a must-watch

Where is Michael Peterson now?

As of 2022, Michael is 78 years old and remains a free man. Following his release from prison on bond in 2011 and official release in 2017, he returned to his home of Durham in North Carolina, moving into a ground-floor two-bedroom condo which his Defence attorney David Rudolf stressed in a statement, has "no stairs".

He has also taken up writing again, penning two books about the case. The proceeds for both memoirs, Behind the Staircase and Beyond the Staircase, have been donated to charity.

Like this story? Sign up to our What to Watch newsletter to get other stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

More TV and Film

See more