‘The Staircase’ Episode 6: Recap And Ending, Explained: How Does The “Owl-Theory” Affect Michael’s Case?


“The Staircase” Episode 6 understandably picks up the pace from the calmer Episode 5, as it now combines a new theory that was introduced about the death of Kathleen around 2009, and Michael Peterson’s own guilty plea presented to the court in 2017. By now, Michael and Sophie’s compassionate and growing relationship had been established, as the man struggled to get used to the fact that his defense appeal had been rejected by the court. With episode 6, “The Staircase” starts to build up to the end of the entire ordeal, which might not turn out to be very satisfying but would definitely be intriguing, at least.

‘The Staircase’ Episode 6: Recap And Ending

The episode begins as usual in February of 2017 as Michael Peterson, Sophie, and defense lawyer David Rudolf gather at the Durham County courthouse to talk about a possible way out of prison for the author. This meeting between the man and his lawyer is the first time since around 2008, when Rudolf went to meet him for the last time in prison. The defense had prepared a second appeal to be presented in court, which was also rejected, and after this, David Rudolf officially took leave from the case, as there was nothing else he could do at the time. He had met Michael in prison to inform him of his leave, and the client was furious with such a decision, as Michael was still unable to come to terms with the fact that he would have to live on in prison for the next many years. Rudolf also mentions that he is about to remarry a press journalist who he had met during the trial, and this frustrates Michael even more, as he doubts whether the lawyer had even done his job seriously. At around this time, the man was also regularly visited by Sophie, who had now started a romantic relationship with Michael and had left her husband and family to settle in a rented house in Durham. The two kept this relationship very open in front of Michael’s children as well, some of whom visited their father a couple of times. Margaret, now married, visits along with her husband Lucas, and the family makes acquaintances with each other. Apparently, Margaret had watched the entire documentary series of DVDs that Sophie had sent her earlier, but the daughter does not show any signs of the show affecting her understanding or judgment of the case. This was also how the show had been perceived by American audiences; despite being quite popular and widely viewed, it did not change their perspective towards the case and Michael, which ultimately led to his defense plea being rejected for the second time.

In an extensive presentation of the past during the Thanksgiving celebrations in 2001, seventeen days before Kathleen’s death, the complications among the Peterson family members are also more clearly revealed. Since Michael had canceled Margaret’s tickets home that time due to her bad college grades, Martha had also decided not to come. The Peterson boys also turned down the idea of having a family Thanksgiving dinner that was being held at Kathleen’s sister Candace’s house. Michael, Kathleen, and Caitlin had gone over for the event, which gives an insight into Kathleen’s own bickering and micromanaging personality. Throughout the day, she kept quarreling with Candace, and late at night, it was Michael who had a comforting conversation with the sister, with a tone of apology for his wife’s behavior. As fate has it, it is now Candace who is fighting for her late sister’s justice against the man who had seemed to be the more compassionate one. When the Petersons returned home the next morning, they found their sons, Clayton and Todd, at their house, which was extremely messy from a party from the previous night. Clayton even found himself waking up next to an unknown woman in his parents’ bed, but was relieved to know that nothing had happened between them as he was in a long-term relationship already. But he had a condom on him, which he dropped beside the bed when he heard his parents return, and it was this unused condom that had been found by the police in Michael’s bedroom. On the other hand, Margaret, too, found out some shocking truths from her aunt when she visited her on that Thanksgiving day. After she and her sister had been adopted by the Petersons, Patricia, their step-mother, was initially overwhelmed by four children, and so had given off their custody to the aunt. It was Michael who sternly asked to keep the daughters with him, though, and after some years, he had suggested that he keep Margaret while sending Martha off to her aunt’s, to which the latter had disagreed, as she knew the two sisters needed each other close to grow up well. Margaret had called up Martha to tell her of all of this, but the sister also excitedly wanted to tell her about her discovering her own sexuality after having an intimate encounter with one of her female classmates. But neither of the two could tell each other of their discoveries, and they promised to share them when they met during the Christmas dinner at the Peterson house. Kathleen, too, had already started looking forward to this Christmas dinner, but that occasion never arrived since she was found dead on the 9th of December, and the entire world of the Petersons had turned upside down since then.

After Sophie had settled down in her new house in Durham, she was repeatedly contacted by Michael’s neighbor and a lawyer by profession, Larry Pollard, who insisted that he had new leads on the case. Once Sophie finally met with him, Larry told her of her new theory—that Kathleen had actually been attacked inside her house by an owl, which then led her towards death. Sophie does find the theory ridiculous at first, but soon she is convinced by it and tries to convince others of it as well. Nothing ultimately comes out of it, though, as none of Larry’s claims in this regard could be proved or even tested. In prison, Michael had started to lose hope in life and everything around him, and the man even seemed to get into physical fights, perhaps desperately hoping for a way out in this way. He was soon comforted by his newly-made friend, Big Ray, who seemed to provide him with courage till the time when he too was apparently transferred from the prison. Finally, back in 2017, Rudolf suggested to Michael that he sign a special-case guilty plea called the Alford plea, which could release him from prison once and for all. But Michael, understanding that signing such a plea would make him confess to killing his wife in front of the court and public, denies going ahead with the plan, saying that a lie can never set one free.

What Was The Owl Theory? Why Could It Not Be Used In Favor Of Michael?

The owl theory, as first thought of by Larry Pollard, was as follows: Kathleen Atwater had gone out to the lawn of the Peterson house on the night of the 9th, after she and Michael had spent some time drinking and smoking by their pool. Kathleen’s reason for going out late at night was to place two decorative deer figures in the yard, which Larry remembers with certainty to not have been there the day previous to Kathleen’s death. After she had placed them, Larry believes Kathleen had been attacked ferociously by a barred owl on her head, which might be proven by the fact that she had deep lacerations on her scalp and yet no skull fracture or brain damage. As the woman tried to fight off the bird, its razor-sharp talons also hit parts of her hands and her face, which then proved the many small bruise marks on the corpse’s hands and face. Once she was able to get back inside the house, she started walking up the stairs to get clothes to wipe off the blood, but either from the extreme blood loss or her desperate hurry, Kathleen slipped on the stairs and fell backward onto the landing’s wall, which further led to all the blood spatters and stains. When Sophie takes a look at Larry’s detailed report on the theory, along with noted newspaper articles of owl attacks on human beings in the area, she is finally convinced and tries to set the wheels into motion. Together, they visit the police station and ask to look at the evidence that was found at the crime scene. Among the recorded items found in the scene were feathers and slivers of tree branches, which the police claimed to be natural since the Petersons lived in a house surrounded by woods. Sophie and Larry now look at these pieces of evidence with attention and seem to find a feather dripped in blood on a strand of hair that was found in Kathleen’s hand. They now grew certain that this would prove that Kathleen was trying to fight off an owl that was attacking her head, and hence her own bloodied hair strand along with a feather could be found on her hand. This would then completely take all the blame off of Michael, as the man was serving time in prison based on the wounds found on his dead wife’s body. Sophie quickly meets with Dr. Deborah Radisch, who had performed Kathleen’s autopsy, but the latter clearly stated that all of these could be proved only if any owl DNA samples could be found on Kathleen’s body, which would need to be exhumed in order to search for such proof. Sophie soon calls up Caitlin and tells her of the whole owl theory, as it is only with the daughter’s permission that Kathleen’s body can be exhumed for any more autopsies. The daughter, however, dismisses Sophie’s plea without even batting an eye, as she understandably does not want her step-father to be acquitted of the crime she believes him to have committed. Sophie’s request is firmly rejected by Caitlin, who asks her not to ever contact her again, and therefore the owl theory could never ultimately be tested by the law even though it might have had some basis no matter how far-fetched and absurd it seemed.

What Does The Alford Plea Mean? Why Did Michael Refuse To Sign It?

The Alford plea is a special guilty plea in the United States that allows a defendant to assert innocence in the criminal case that they are found guilty, but where they also admit that they would be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt if their case is presented again in front of a judge or jury. In the case of Michael, as Rudolf explains, his defense lawyers would put in an Alford plea on his behalf, which would mean that Michael pleads guilty to having killed Kathleen, despite him always maintaining that he was innocent. The reason why he would then plead guilty, despite himself claiming to have not committed the crime, is that he knows for certain that if his case is once again presented in front of a judge or jury, the evidence produced in court by the prosecution would convince the judge or jury to find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of having committed the crime. The reason Rudolf and his team wanted to put in the Alford plea was to try and reduce Michael’s prison sentence from life imprisonment to a maximum of 229 months (around 19 or so years). That was the rule against a charge of voluntary manslaughter (which, in terms of law, is seen as less punishable a crime than murder). However, after hearing Rudolf’s plan, Michael understands that he would indirectly have to plead guilty in front of the court for having killed his wife, and he is sternly against doing it. Exactly why he refuses to sign the plea is not presented, but judging the man’s character, it might be possible that he did so because of the presence of the documentary crew inside the room. When Michael had sat down with Rudolf, they were also accompanied by their old acquaintance Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, who had returned after all these many years to continue shooting a second part of the documentary about the new happenings in the case in 2017. When Rudolf asks Michael what he thinks of the Alford plea, the novelist takes a quick look at the camera before denying that he would go ahead with it. Perhaps the man still maintains his image of an innocent victim of a husband only because he wants to, and it is ultimately part of the plans of an otherwise calm and cool personality.

What To Expect From ‘the Staircase’ Episode 7?

What is perhaps coming up next in ‘The Staircase’ is how Michael Peterson is ultimately convinced to put in the Alford plea, because he did so in real life. The series has so far very well maintained the growing mental effects of the case on the children, especially on Todd and Martha, who have to now visit help groups and therapists in order to deal with their crushing substance addiction and depression. The following episodes will once again, perhaps, present more such insights. Whether the series provides any new information about Michael and his life post the murder trial is also something to look forward to as “The Staircase” now moves towards its end.

See More: ‘The Staircase’ Episode 7: Recap And Ending, Explained – What Did The Project For Actual Innocence Find?

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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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