'I Was Michael Peterson's Lawyer, I Still Believe He's Innocent'

On May 5, HBO premiered its docudrama series, The Staircase, "based on a true story." More than 20 years after I first became a part of that story, the show has created a new chapter for me in what seems to be a never-ending tale.

In December 2001, three months to the day that the World Trade Centers were attacked, I received a phone call that would change the entire arc of my life. The call was from a lawyer in Reno, Nevada, Bill Peterson. He had gotten my name from a number of lawyers he knew. He asked if I would talk to his brother, Michael Peterson, about possibly representing him. Little did I know that by saying yes, I was embarking on a journey I could hardly have imagined.

I represented Michael Peterson, who was charged with the first-degree murder of his wife, Kathleen, at his trial, and during years of post-trial litigation. I did a substantial amount of due diligence to corroborate various things he told me. Each time I checked with an independent source about a piece of information I had received from Michael, it checked out. There was no evidence of any discord in the marriage. Their friends all described their relationship in glowing terms. There was no apparent motive. I came to believe Michael was innocent, and I continue to believe that to this very day.

A few months after I was retained to represent him, I was approached by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, a French filmmaker who had just won an Oscar for his documentary, Murder on a Sunday Morning. That film had explored the workings of the American justice system from the perspective of an indigent defendant represented by a public defender. De Lestrade now wanted to do a study of how the American justice system worked when the defendant had ample resources to defend himself. He wasn't interested in guilt or innocence. He was interested in showing how the system actually worked.

Michael, who even at that time was a controversial figure in Durham, North Carolina, where the trial would take place, believed that the presence of an Academy-award winning documentarian would keep the district attorney (DA) and the police more "honest" in how the case proceeded. I was impressed and intrigued by the filmmaker's desire to educate people about how the criminal justice system actually worked, as opposed to the caricatures presented in shows like Law & Order.

	Novelist Michael Peterson Addresses Reporters
Lawyer David Rudolf (L) Novelist Michael Peterson(R) addresses reporters after his court hearing in Durham County, N.C., on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017. Peterson agreed to an “Alford plea,” which enables him to maintain his innocence in the death of his wife Kathleen Peterson in 2001. Skip Foreman/AP

So, with certain conditions to safeguard attorney-client privilege, I allowed the French documentary film crew access to my pre-trial preparations and to my work during the trial. They also filmed the entire trial itself. The result was an eight-part documentary series, The Staircase, that aired first on the Sundance Channel in 2005 and, with five additional episodes, on Netflix in 2018. The Staircase was highly acclaimed and won the prestigious Peabody Award in 2005. When it aired to a world-wide audience on Netflix, it opened viewers eye's about the faults in the justice system, and the fairness of the trial, whether they ultimately believe Michael was guilty or not.

In 2009, a young filmmaker, Antonio Campos, who had seen the documentary, reached out to talk to me. He wanted to know why I had allowed the filmmaker such access, and what effect that had on my preparations and the trial. We had lunch. I answered all of his questions, and informed him of the conditions I had required to allow such access. One of these was that the film would not be released publicly until all court proceedings, including any appeals, had been concluded.

When I heard in 2021 that Campos had purchased the rights to the documentary and was going to make a TV show about the case, I reached out to him, based on our previous discussions. I had seen too many films with trial scenes I knew could not happen in real life, which ruined the film for me. I couldn't take it seriously. So I offered to consult with him, for free, with regard to any legal technicalities in the script. Campos demurred.

As a result, his film contains some depictions that are transparently false to any prosecutor or criminal defense lawyer. For example, I am shown standing in the grand jury room while the prosecutor presents his evidence to the grand jury. In fact, defense lawyers are not allowed to be in the grand jury room in any jurisdiction of which I am aware, and I certainly wasn't there in Michael's case. I have spoken to my co-counsel, Tom Maher, and he agrees that his portrayal is not accurate.

But more important than these inaccurate portrayals, there are other scenes that are complete fiction, apparently meant to create drama where none existed. The series has a scene which purports to show me excoriating Michael four weeks before the start of the trial for not telling me earlier about an important fact—but I had known that particular fact for more than a year before the trial began. It was a fact I had thoroughly investigated by flying to Germany with my investigator months before the trial. The implication that Michael had hidden this fact was false, and completely unfair to him. But the filmmakers can claim dramatic license. I get it.

What they can't claim dramatic license for is how the show falsely portrays that de Lestrade, and one of the film's editors, Sophie Brunet, a highly respected editor in her own right, were motivated by an improper and unethical motive in putting together the documentary—a desire to have the documentary "help" Michael's appeal. In the show's fifth episode, it is specifically alleged that Brunet was engaged in a romantic relationship with Michael at the time certain courtroom scenes were edited, and that she and de Lestrade made editorial decisions about those scenes that were inconsistent with the actual purpose of the documentary: to present a realistic portrayal of the American criminal justice system, without regard to Michael's guilt or innocence.

This is simply and unequivocally false. Campos was told when I first met him that I agreed to participate in the making of the documentary only because the filmmakers agreed that nothing would be shown publicly until any appeals were exhausted. Since I had no way of knowing how Michael's trial would end, this requirement was meant to ensure fairness throughout the criminal process, including any appeals. De Lestrade agreed to that condition. Obviously, under these circumstances, there could be no expectation (or hope) on his part during the editing process that the film would have any impact on the appeal.

Michael Peterson's Lawyer David Rudolf
David Rudolf represented Michael Peterson in the real-life murder trial depicted in the new HBO series 'The Staircase.' David Rudolf

Even worse, Sophie Brunet was not engaged in any relationship with Michael during the time she worked on the project between 2002 and October 2003—when the trial ended. I have spoken about this at length with de Lestrade, Allyson Luchak, the producer, and Scott Stevenson, the person who actually did the editing of the courtroom footage. They have written statements detailing the truth about the editing process, statements that were sent to Campos along with a request that a disclaimer be added before each episode.

Here is an outline of what those statements say. Before she left, Brunet did not edit any of the courtroom scenes she was alleged in the HBO series to have edited. Scott Stevenson was the person who made all those edits. Brunet was not even working on the project at the time decisions were made about what scenes to include in the final cut.

I have spoken to Michael about the HBO series, but he hasn't watched it, and doesn't intend to. He lived the "real story." I was a part of the process that resulted in an extraordinary documentary that sheds important light on fundamental problems in the criminal justice system, and I know the truth about how and why the documentary was made. But the millions of people watching the HBO series are left with the distinct impression that the actual documentary was intentionally skewed for an ulterior and completely improper motive—to help the subject of the film win his appeal. I hope Campos and HBO come clean about the factual mistakes they made in the series, and help repair the reputations they denigrated. The Staircase documentary deserves respect from Campus and HBO—the "real story" should have been told.

David Rudolf is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney. He is the author of American Injustice and co-hosts the criminal justice podcast Abuse of Power. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidSRudolf. Find out more about him at davidsrudolf.com.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.