After viewing the first episode of HBO Max’s “The Staircase,” Charlotte attorney David Rudolf — who defended Michael Peterson in the real-life murder case depicted in the dramatized limited series — was interested to watch the inspired-by-true-events show unfold.
By the end of the fourth episode, however, he was just annoyed.
“A lot of that’s just hard for me to even comment on,” Rudolf said.
Before we get to what happened in Episode 4 (and you are forewarned: SPOILERS ahead), if you’ve seen Episode 1 you’ll remember that the hour is bookended by scenes showing Michael (Colin Firth) with a woman played by the French actress Juliette Binoche.
It’s not clear who Binoche’s character is supposed to be; although right before the credits roll, it seems clear that in these scenes — set in 2017, more than 15 years after Kathleen’s death — Sophie and Michael are romantically involved. She shows up again in Episodes 2 and 3 in 2017-set scenes with Michael.
But the dramatized HBO series drops a bombshell at the end of Episode 4:
Binoche’s Brunet is heard reading a letter as Firth’s Michael is shown in a prison cell looking at it. In the letter, the character asserts her belief that Michael is innocent, and says that “while you wait for your freedom, your story will be told. I will tell it for you.” Binoche’s Brunet is then shown on-screen sitting down with the two characters who have been established in previous episodes as making a documentary about the case: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) and Denis Poncet (Frank Feys).
“Let me show you what I’ve cut together,” she tells them, with a smile, right before the credits roll.
All of this amounts to a strong insinuation by the HBO series’ creator, Antonio Campos, that this woman is about to orchestrate the creation of a biased documentary.
If you don’t know the true story well, you might think that there’s some truth to all of this.
Well, there is — and there also most definitely isn’t, Rudolf says.
It’s true that, in 2018, while promoting the Netflix docuseries “The Staircase,” the real-life de Lestrade suggested that Peterson and Brunet had formed a relationship while he was in prison and following his release in 2011. De Lestrade said it ended in May 2017.
Actually, let’s allow Rudolf to explain: The Sophie character in the dramatized HBO series is supposed to be Sophie Brunet, one of the three real-life editors who worked for de Lestrade on the docuseries. She edited the outside-the-courtroom footage that appears in the first four episodes of that docuseries, and then left to work on another film. Two other editors were responsible for editing all of the in-the-courtroom footage, which made up the bulk of Episodes 5 through 8.
(Interestingly, although de Lestrade is credited as a co-executive producer on the HBO show, he reportedly was not involved at all in the creation or development of it; also, although de Lestrade is white in real-life, the show cast a Black actor, Vermignon, in the role.)
With that said, here’s what Rudolf — who says he also was not consulted by the filmmakers, and says he has stayed in touch with de Lestrade over the years — told The Charlotte Observer about HBO’s depiction of Brunet:
“The implication that Jean made the documentary with the intention that it would exonerate Michael is just wrong and completely unfair. I mean, there was a lot of footage that he could have included in the documentary that would have been favorable to Michael that did not make it to the final cut. For example, we found the Army CID (Criminal Investigation Division) agent who went to the scene in Germany, and said there was no blood. He testified to that in court during the trial, under oath, and we put his contemporaneous report into evidence. His testimony and report were totally inconsistent with what the women from Germany (who testified for the prosecution about alleged “flashbacks”) said.
“So, there was footage on either side that could have been included in the final cut, that wasn’t, because Jean and the two editors who were preparing the final cut after Sophie left in October 2003 were compressing hundreds of hours of footage into an eight-hour documentary. Choices had to made. You can take issue with what was included and what wasn’t — which I do — but to ascribe an ulterior motive to those necessary choices is beyond unfair to an Academy Award-winning documentarian. It taints his work, his reputation, and his legacy — without any basis in fact. It’s a cheap trick to pump ratings.”
Here is a curated selection of Rudolf’s reactions to other key moments in Episode 4.
Did Martha have a meltdown?
As seen on TV: At a meeting with Peterson’s children the day before Kathleen’s autopsy photos will be shown to the jury, Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg) explains that “we really need everyone there, arm in arm, united front.” Martha (Odessa Young) shakes her head, and says, “I can’t go.” Rudolf says no one’s going to force her, to which she replies: “Of course you’re gonna force me.” Rudolf then says, “Optics aren’t great.” Martha gets agitated, and adamantly refuses again. The scene then cuts to the next day — and Martha is sitting in the courtroom, looking uncomfortable.
(Also worth noting: In Episode 3, Rudolf says to Martha — after she and her sister Margaret somewhat reluctantly agree to a TV interview — “Think about dyeing your hair. Bleached blonde isn’t great on camera.”)
The real Rudolf’s reaction: False. “I don’t ever remember a scene where Martha lost her s--- and didn’t want to go to court. I mean, there may have been times when she said, ‘I’d rather not be there.’ But to lose her s--- like that? No. And if she had, I certainly wouldn’t have pressed her to go. But optics are important in a courtroom. That’s the reality. The jury’s looking at everything.”
‘It’s a stupid question’
As seen on TV: During his cross-examination of medical examiner Deborah Radisch (Susan Pourfar), who performed the autopsy on Kathleen, Rudolf asks her: “Is it possible, in order to reach the conclusion that Kathleen Peterson’s death was a homicide, that you were coached by the D.A.?” The district attorney, Jim Hardin (Cullen Moss), objects — and Rudolf quickly withdraws the question.
The real Rudolf’s reaction: False. “Did I ever say to Deborah Radisch, ‘Were you coached by the D.A.?’ No. It’s a stupid question. But these are the things that they put in TV movies,” he says, adding that he wishes the filmmakers had avoided melodrama because “there was enough they could have put in that would have been real without that stuff.”
Friction within the family
As seen on TV: Inside the Peterson house, tensions rise between Michael’s natural sons and his adopted daughters, after Martha calls Clayton (Dane DeHaan), Todd (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and Michael “crazy.” “Why can’t you guys just be normal??” Martha cries, sounding exasperated. Todd: “Margie, can you keep your little sister in check?” Margaret (Sophie Turner): “No, she’s right. I’m sick of defending you guys, too.” Todd: “Oh, really? You’re gonna say that in front of our mother. Our mother who took you in off the street.” Margaret: “Well, all you do is hit her up for money. You guys make everything worse. You rack up debt. You embarrass us.” Michael and Rudolf enter the house just in time to see Clayton and Martha shoving each other and screaming.
The real Rudolf’s reaction: False — from his perspective, at least. “No!” he says, when asked if he ever saw that kind of tension between Peterson’s children. “No. Never! I never saw it. Now, I’m not saying it didn’t happen when I wasn’t there. But, for example, they have me walking into that scene? That never happened.”
To testify, or not to testify?
As seen on TV: In a meeting with the Peterson defense team before the blow-up between the children, Rudolf explains that they’re ready to present their closing argument when Michael blurts out that he wants to testify. He says he wants to let the jury know how much he loves Kathleen. Rudolf urges him not to take the stand.
In the next scene, Clayton is in the garage working on an old car when he finds the blow poke, which the prosecution believed Michael had used as the murder weapon and then made disappear. (The blow poke theory would eventually be ruled out.)
Then, in the scene in which he breaks up the fight between his children, Michael declares that he will indeed be testifying after all. But when Rudolf gets him alone in the next scene, he pleads his case again, explaining how Michael’s credibility with the jury will suffer when the prosecution brings up a past lie he told about his military record, and that “I can get the blow poke in without putting you ... on the stand, and your case won’t suffer for it.” Michael ultimately relents.
The real Rudolf’s reaction: True. “I did discourage Michael from testifying. I think it would have been bad for him, for various reasons. I didn’t think we needed it. Once we found the blow poke, I just didn’t think we needed it anymore.”
What a murder might have looked like
As seen on TV: The filmmakers — who in Episode 2 imagined how Kathleen (Toni Collette) might have died in a fall — imagine how she might have died by murder. After she finds evidence of infidelity on a computer, an argument ensues. He tries to walk away from it, but she follows him up the staircase and continues shouting at him. In a fit of rage, Michael pushes her backwards down the staircase, then grabs her by the neck, and slams her head into a stair twice before she bleeds to death.
The real Rudolf’s reaction: “Well, it was interesting, because all of a sudden they didn’t have a blow poke. And it sort of confirmed (the defense’s forensic scientist) Henry Lee’s theory about how all the blood got on the (walls). And it was totally inconsistent with what Duane Deaver testified about — you know, blows ‘out in space.’ So, do I think that could happen? I guess. But there was no evidence that Kathleen ever saw anything on the computer. That was just their theory. And indeed, the computer forensic people said that she had never turned on the computer after she had that conversation with her coworker about 11 or so. They were all in the house; they went outside after that. The next time the computer got turned on was by the Durham police when they had control of the house.”
Assorted other thoughts from Rudolf
On not being asked by the filmmakers for his input: “Do they want me involved in the decisions about how to portray the family? No, and I really couldn’t have added much to that. (But) I said to them, ‘I’m happy to just talk technical, just so you get everything right.’ They basically said, ‘No, we don’t want to have anything to do with the defense side.’ And I guess the same thing was true on the prosecution side. ... I just think that’s short-sighted.”
On Michael Stuhlbarg’s portrayal of him: “I’d really like somebody else to tell me what they think. I don’t know. I don’t think he looks that much like me, for one thing. So that’s sort of hard to wrap my head around. If it was Al Pacino, I’d feel better. (Chuckling.) But Al’s a little bit old now. (Sighs.) You know, it’s hard for me to separate out the inaccuracies from how he’s playing me. ... It’s not his fault. He was given a script. So I’m not gonna fault him for saying it. But does it impact how I’m viewing how I’m being portrayed? Sure it does. Not that I’m insulted. It’s just not accurate.”
On seeing Kathleen brought to life by Toni Collette, and seeing an imagining of her marriage to Michael: “It fits with everything that I learned about her, and about their relationship. Everything you saw there was completely consistent with everything that I ever learned about her personality, how they got along, how they mingled with people, how they relaxed and celebrated. In some ways it was gratifying to see her brought to life. Because I only knew her as a victim. As a dead person. And it was nice to see her portrayed as a living human being who actually loved people and who was loved.”