‘The Staircase’ Episode 4: Recap And Ending, Explained: What Is The Jury’s Verdict On Michael Peterson’s Case?


In its first three episodes, HBO’s true-crime drama series “The Staircase” left off the case against novelist Michael Peterson at an interesting point where the trials had just begun. This was also after his adopted daughters, Margaret and Martha, had opened up about their father in a television interview, which had then led to the sensational revelation of how the two girls’ mother had died. Elizabeth Ratliff, the mother, had been found dead at her home in the same manner that Kathleen Atwater had now been found—lying dead at the foot of a staircase in her house. Michael and his erstwhile wife, Patricia, were very close friends and neighbors to the Ratliffs at the time, and the man had also visited her house the previous night. It was now quite obvious that this matter would be raised in the trials after the DA’s office had been granted permission to exhume Elizabeth’s body and perform an autopsy. “The Staircase” Episode 4 deals with the court trial, the various implications that it has on the family, and, the jury’s verdict.

‘The Staircase’ episode 4 Recap And Ending

In its usual style of combining multiple timelines, the episode begins in February of 2017 with an interview of a woman named Sophie Brunet, conducted by the documentary team that was covering Michael’s life during the whole court trial. Sophie had earlier been seen preparing Michael for his final court appearance, and now it is revealed that the two have been together for almost twelve years. With the interview going on, happenings of the past are shown, with Sophie’s replies often becoming explanatory descriptions of the past. When the trial began in 2003, the two parties maintained their versions: District Attorney Jim Hardin and his team, also backed by Kathleen’s sisters, claimed that Michael had murdered his wife with a blow poke after she had got to know of her husband’s secretive bisexuality, and defense lawyer for Michael, David Rudolf defended that Kathleen had slipped on the stairs and fallen to her death after consuming alcohol and Valium. Over the next few days, multiple experts and witnesses present their statements from both sides while a bench of twelve jurors forms their decision on the matter. Dr. Deborah Radisch, the forensic pathologist who had performed Kathleen’s autopsy, presented her statement, which now said with surety that the woman had died from blunt force trauma to the head and she had also suffered probable strangulation. The dreaded photographs from the autopsy are also shown in court during this time, much to the horror of the daughters, and Michael himself noticeably looks away from the photos. The pathologist’s statement was questioned by Rudolf and his team by presenting autopsy reports of all cases involving beating to death from 1991 to 2003, with two common factors in all of them: skull fracture or injury to the brain, neither of which was found in Kathleen’s case.

Things took a turn again, though, when Elizabeth Ratliff’s autopsy report, performed by Dr. Radisch, arrived, which showed similar injuries as Kathleen’s, with seven deep lacerations on her scalp, and no sign of brain aneurysm. Agnes Schafer, the nanny to Margaret and Martha at the time of their mother’s death, is brought to court from Germany as a key witness. Agnes recounts that one morning she came to the house and found Elizabeth lying dead at the foot of the staircase amidst a huge pool of blood. She had rushed to call Michael from the next house for help, and upon arriving, he immediately claimed that she had died from a brain aneurysm, which then turned out to be true in the German autopsies. This had made Agnes doubt that Michael had been involved in the death, and she kept working at the man’s house for the next year, now claiming that she did so to protect the two girls. Agnes’ account is also questioned by the defending lawyers by carefully making her word her recollections as “flashbacks” and not factual memories. The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation’s Duane Deaver presents his findings in court, that the blood spatters and drop of blood found on Michael’s pants suggest that he had beaten his wife to death from a certain angle while standing right outside the stairwell. This is contradicted by Rudolf’s expert, Dr. Henry Lee, who claims that all the blood spatter found matched totally with a scenario in which Kathleen had fallen and burst her head open against a wall, and then coughed up blood. Possibly now feeling the jury turning against him, Michael wanted to testify in court himself to tell his whole story from his side, much to the disagreement of his lawyer. Michael’s eldest son, Clayton, found the blow poke, believed to have been the murder weapon from a corner in their garage. Rudolf managed to convince Michael that he could introduce the blow poke, which had no blood or sign of murder on it, in court without Michael’s testification and heavily suggested that he should not do so.

Despite some of the trial days going in favor of Michael, the growing doubt in his two adopted daughters now kept growing with each piece of evidence presented in court against him. Martha, who had already talked of her doubts to her sister, now starts to believe that her adopted dad had killed both her biological mother as well as Kathleen. After hearing Agnes’ testimony in court, she even locked herself inside Peterson’s car and threatened not to open it unless Michael told them what exactly had happened. Margaret, too, goes through a change of opinion in “The Staircase” Episode 4, as she is initially seen going through old family tapes to prove that the blow-poke had been missing from their fireplace for quite some time. But the findings of her biological mother’s strange death and autopsy reports made her think twice about the whole matter from a different perspective, as she admits to the documentary crew, and Agnes’ subsequent recollection of the past convinces her even more.

When Clayton returned home from university, despite his father not wanting him to return, the lawyers decided to sit down with him and go over questions in case he was called for testimony, as it was he who had found the blow poke. This revealed that Clayton had been in trouble with the law multiple times before, as was suggested in the previous episodes of “The Staircase.” He had two cases of drunk driving against him, and had got four years of prison time after planting pipe bombs; although he claims that they were not meant to go off and had only been distractions so that he could make fake IDs for his friends to get a beer with, more bombs were found in his own room in his house, and he was convicted of the crime. He was then again in trouble with the law after he had physically hit his fiancée in a drunken state, which he claims to have been only a push. All this is revealed not only to the disappointment of the lawyers, who feared that a history of domestic abuse by the son would definitely bring similar accusations against the father, but also to the utter surprise and disappointment of the Ratcliff sisters. Martha lashes out at Clayton and Todd, and is supported by Margaret. Through scenes of the past, an instance of Clayton having a verbal disagreement with his stepmother Kathleen is also seen, in which Clayton suggests that the woman had been physically involved with his father before his divorce from Patricia, and Kathleen’s silence in response seems to ascertain this suggestion.

Finally, back in the courtroom, David Rudolf presents the clean blow poke and claims that the authorities had neither searched the premises carefully nor asked the defending party about the instrument’s whereabouts. With a final blow to the DA’s accusations, Rudolf now rests the defense’s case, awaiting judgment by the jury. The jury, though, ultimately passes its verdict as it believes what had happened to be: on the night of December 9th, 2001, Michael and Kathleen had been drinking by their poolside, and Kathleen had entered the house after some time. She had gone through Michael’s computer and had found the explicit photographs and suggestive emails and had soon confronted her husband about it. He started to walk away and climb up the stairs, and the wife followed, taunting him and demanding a divorce, and Michael then pushed her down the stairs, making her head hit the wall. He then violently strangled her, and then looked on as she gasped for breath. Only then did he provide any medical support to her, just to stage the scene before calling 911. Based on this judgment by the jury, the court ordered life imprisonment for Michael without any possibility of parole. At the very end of “The Staircase” Episode 4, back in 2017, it is revealed that Sophie Brunet had been the editor of the original documentary series that was being shot by Jean-Xavier, and she had believed from the very beginning that Michael was innocent and was being framed by a corrupt city council.

What does episode 4 reveal about Michael’s character?

In episode 3 of “The Staircase,” Michael Peterson was already presented as a man who always knew his way out of disagreements and misunderstandings, especially in his domestic space. “The Staircase” Episode 4 further builds up on this and introduces a certain strict, and almost forceful, nature to the man in dealing with his immediate family. From the beginning of the series, Michael seemed to have a positive effect on all his children, suggesting that his kids would always do what he would ask them to do. Although Caitlin had turned against him after seeing her mother’s autopsy reports, there was still a sense of love and admiration between the father and his children that the show maintained. Now, in episode 4, though, that sense of love is gradually shifted towards a sense of stern forcefulness that he treated his children with as more information came out. When it was announced that the autopsy photographs would be presented in court, Martha immediately expressed her outright unwillingness to be present in court anymore. Although the lawyer tries to be gradually convincing to her, Michael suggests that she take some of her stepmother’s Valium and attend the trial. Martha now disagrees even more, clearly stating that she does not want to be present, and yet the girl is then seen in court the next day, visibly upset.

By now, it is clear that Michael’s best and perfect ally is his youngest son, Todd, who listens to all his suggestions and instructions, and the two try their best to keep Clayton away from town because of the son’s past crimes and also his involvement in domestic violence. Todd is dismissive of his elder brother in the same way that Michael himself is seen to be, and he keeps protecting his father’s image against tarnish when their step-sisters lash out against him. This scene also very subtly frames the character of Patricia, Michael’s ex-wife, who hurriedly goes to her husband and informs him about the quarreling children. In the disagreement, Martha and Margaret also take her side, saying that the Petersons only used Patricia at present to pull out more money from her, but the woman stays silent and takes no side. It is almost as if Patricia is a timid, obedient wife to a stern Michael, and she is scared of the man, even after they have been divorced for many years. In an earlier scene, when Michael recalls when he had heard classical music for the first time, he is shown as a young boy in his father’s car, who was also an army personnel. Although Michael says that he was upset after possibly losing a softball match, he cannot exactly remember, a terrible dark bruise under his right eye is seen. Despite nothing particular being pointed out, the bruise on the young child and the father’s stern face, in contrast to the mother’s apologetic one, gives a sense that Michael might have been beaten by his father, which could have been a regular affair. This, then, combined with the character of the two sons and Agnes’s testimony in court, which said that he was very harsh on the boys, might suggest that Michael too had a habit of reprimanding his children with physical assault.

What to expect next from ‘The Staircase’ episode 5?

Since Michael has already been found guilty by the jury and court and has been served with imprisonment, the show’s focus will now obviously be on Sophie Brunet and her fight to prove the man innocent. Being the editor of the documentary series that was filmed, Sophie had access to all the footage that had been captured, and she had extensively researched the matter as well, as she admits in a letter that she wrote to Michael in jail at the end of “The Staircase” episode 4. There have been hints throughout the episodes that DA Hardin wanted to pin the case on Michael Peterson by hook or by crook, due to their personal history, and the series would probably look more into it. Whether any more information about Michael’s history of violence in the domestic space comes out would also be something to expect.

See More: ‘The Staircase’ Episode 5: Recap And Ending, Explained: Is Michael Peterson Able To Get Out Of Prison?

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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