Australia, like the rest of the world, has an unabashed obsession with true crime. Thanks to streaming sites offering a wealth of superlative and stupidly-addictive titles of this ilk, there’s never a shortage to gorge on. Way back in 2004 though, in an epoch long before the Netflix colossus made its mark, the pickings were slim.
Enter stage left, The Staircase, a trailblazer of a documentary series offering the opportunity to be a fly-on-the-wall of a truly sensational trial – that of wealthy author and Vietnam War vet, Michael Peterson, accused of brutally murdering his wife, Kathleen Peterson, in their opulent Forest Hills mansion in North Carolina.
Though the media’s spotlight remained largely affixed to the more sordid rumours about the accused, the series instead focused on presenting the totality of the story, with the main arc following the work of the defence team, as led by renowned lawyer, David Rudolf. We first begin by discussing one aspect that the exhaustively detailed documentary overlooked – how he came to be involved and ultimately appointed as lead defence lawyer.
‘I’d lived and practiced in the area for decades,’ he says. ‘So, when this case first occurred in 2001, it was in the news and obviously I’d heard about it because I lived not far from Durham [county that Forest Hills is located in] and shortly after that, I got a call from Michael’s brother, Bill, who asked me if I would be willing to go and talk with Michael.’
The reasonings behind the Peterson clan approaching Rudolf in the first place proved to be very straight-forward – being thoroughly impressed by the lawyer’s reputation as a formidable practitioner of law and one armed with extensive experience in a myriad of high-profile cases involving homicides and assorted grisly crime-scenes.
‘So, I went to talk with Michael with my investigator, Ron Guerrette, and spent the better part of the day talking with him,’ he says. ‘And much of what he told us, we were able to corroborate fairly quickly and we agreed to represent him and didn’t look back after that.’
Though Rudolf’s resolve was sure from the outset, having been no stranger to cases of this magnitude that had innately attracted frenzied media coverage, it nevertheless proved to be an unprecedented endeavour for him, insofar as being trailed around 24/7 by a camera crew. The lawyer reveals that the adjustment period for this proved to be fleeting and relatively seamless.
‘I hadn’t had cameras around me in that particular circumstance,’ he says. ‘Though it was a bit different with having them around when I was talking to my client and preparing my defence,’
He found that after the first formative week or so had passed, the camera crew became part of the furniture and any lingering sense of self-consciousness was henceforth erased. The lawyer believed this ultimately resulted in a complete and unvarnished depiction of the daily goings-on of how defence lawyers work. Pleased with achieving this with The Staircase, Rudolf argues that, on the strength of this accomplishment, it renders it nigh on impossible to replicate such success.
‘For one thing, you have attorney/client privileges that need to be addressed,’ he says, revealing that the filmmakers unreservedly complied with several agreements which were essential in order to progress forward. ‘I’m not sure that other lawyers would be willing to risk putting their trust in filmmakers to abide by those conditions.’
With their arrangement firmly set in place, both camera crew and defence team were able to productively chug along without distracting, or otherwise impeding each other. Shortly into production, with the trial looming ever nearer, there arose a poignant moment that conveyed the level of trust established, whereby Rudolf candidly explains to the camera, what he believes his role as a defence lawyer is. Rudolf reveals that this belief has remained unchanged throughout all the succeeding years.
‘At the end of the day, what we as criminal lawyer do, or are supposed to do, is resist the abuse of power by people in authority in the criminal justice system,’ he says. ‘Whether they are police, or prosecutors, or judges, and we protect the rule of law and that’s really what our function is. It’s why I’m proud to do what I do, it’s why I’ve done it my whole career.’
Though his guiding principals have prevailed throughout his long career, Rudolf is quick to mention he is human like the rest of us and therefore prone to flawed moments. While his veneer remains mostly stoic throughout the daily courtroom proceedings the documentary captures, there was one moment outside of it, albeit outside of office hours, that he acknowledges wasn’t his best. On the eve before the first day of trial, Rudolf is practicing his opening statement, when a series of technical issues with the accompanying slide-show cause him to lose his temper.
‘It wasn’t my finest moment, we can agree on that,’ he says. ‘If nothing else this just shows that I certainly didn’t exert any editorial control over the final product, or that particular scene probably would never have been in it.’
He chuckles. ‘It didn’t show me in a very positive light, but again it just shows the kind of emotion, that coursing through a criminal defence lawyer in preparing to defend someone who is facing life in prison. To that end, I think it gives real insight into the pressures that go into defending somebody.’
Another constant source of pressure faced throughout the trial and one that never tapered off, but instead worsened – was the pernicious conjecture originating from the media. Rudolf next considers how the media’s insane and largely unfounded theories delivered endlessly, have the potential to indelibly taint the mindset of jurors.
‘The media can have a very negative impact on the fairness of the trial,’ he says. ‘I think that once someone is exposed to false information they tend to filter the facts, that come into view through that prior lens. Once somebody is tainted, by prejudicial publicity, I think it’s very hard to get rid of that and I think it does in fact adversely affect the fairness of the trial.’
Given the Peterson trial was nationwide news and unfailingly covered daily by a slew of networks from the start and particularly around Durham Country, where the alleged crime took place, one consideration that must’ve been kicked around in the defence camp at some stage would be to request moving the trial to another county, ideally one less sullied by media-borne rumours. Rudolf shares that such a motion was indeed considered by the team, but only briefly.
‘The problem with North Carolina is, you have no control over whether the trial is moved to,’ he explains. ‘The judge can move it to some really rural county where people would’ve been more prejudice against bisexuality, for example. So that really limited our ability to move the trial.’
With the stage set, the trial progressed in earnest and at one point roughly midway through Peterson made an offhand comment during a table meet, that the jury may consider Rudolf “slick” – which Rudolf responds to with surprise.
‘I don’t think I present myself as a typically slick guy,’ he says. ‘It’s certainly not my goal to present myself in that way. I don’t wear fancy watches and I don’t wear fancy suits. As Kathleen’s sister said in one of the episodes, my suits are sort of “well-worn”. To call me slick, I’m not sure where that came from.’
Rudolf asserts that he has only ever conducted himself as the sincerest form of himself and that this is key. ‘I think that authenticity is the most important thing,’ he says. ‘The jury can see right through someone that is pretending to be something they are not.’
Whether his personality, or the jury’s perception of it, ever played a part will never be known for certain, though what can be, is the detriment emotional effect the verdict of the first trial had on Rudolf, one he had never experienced before, nor again.
‘Never, never, never, never,’ he says with a sigh. He attributes much of the enduring devastation he felt to his unshakable belief that, based on all evidence presented, along with his countless hours of dealings with Peterson, that the man was innocent of all that he stood accused of.
Beyond this opinion being buttressed by the mound of incontrovertible evidence that the team had painstakingly acquired in mounting their defence, Rudolf had also formed an emotional bond with his client. ‘The trial lasted an incredibly long time and so we formed a strong attorney-client bond during that time,’ he says, finally mentioning the discovery of the blowpoke. ‘When we found the blowpoke that was allegedly the murder weapon, I couldn’t imagine how a jury could convict anyone after we found that blowpoke. I mean, the prosecution had talked about that being the murder weapon for months, so all of those things together, I think, was why the verdict was so devastating for me.’
This sense of a tremendous wrong remaining uncorrected, endured for the next few years when the case remained seemingly decisively closed. In the interim, Peterson remained incarcerated while Rudolf continued practicing law in Durham County and across the state of North Carolina, until the case of the wrongful imprisonment of Greg Taylor became another sensation news story that consequently brought Peterson’s case to the public fore again.
The two disparate homicide cases had one thing in common – a man by the name of Duane Deaver, a then-respected, supposed forensics expert whose involvement was unequivocally instrumental in securing convictions for the prosecution in both trials. To make it all the more insufferable, Rudolf was acutely aware from the first day that Deaver took the stand in the trial, that he was not only an unqualified “expert” of dubious repute, but a perjurious one.
‘I believed that in 2003, that Deaver had committed perjury,’ Rudolf says. ‘I knew he had committed perjury because I knew what the science was. But being able to prove that, and then being able to prove that he had lied about his credentials and his experience, that he had other cases of falsifying evidence or hiding evidence, all of that came to light years after.’
The explosive revelations acted as the legal impetus for Rudolf to return and motion for a retrial. ‘I was fairly convinced that if Judge Hudson heard this again, then he would grant a retrial,’ he says. ‘And certainly, with all the new evidence I thought the correct ruling would be finally granted.’
Though vindication was at hand, albeit in the works, Rudolf reflects on how getting an innocent man out of gaol doesn’t excuse the fact that he languished in it for the first place. Most troubling, he believes that Kafkaesque cases such as these aren’t one-offs. ‘They occur with some frequency, and I think there are a number of innocent people in prison as a result of that kind of junk science and we’re finding out more and more about that.’
He expands with detailing several examples of scientific practices that have been universally discredited, including hair comparisons and the validity of bite marks, with even the FBI admitting how patently unreliable they are. Despite the radical change in legal processes, it cannot undo all the unfortunate souls that have been sent to prison, based on the strength of these types of evidence.
‘These alleged sciences are just ways in which police sort of craft a case,’ he says. ‘Where the evidence may be weak, so they need some help and there are these pseudo-scientists who are not independent, they basically just come in and provide the police with what they need. I think it’s a real problem in the American justice system and I suspect it’s a real problem in the Australian justice system too.’
Despite knowing early on that Duane Deaver was committing perjury, Rudolf was nevertheless unable to convince the jury and judge of this and Peterson received a guilty verdict as a result. This resoundingly crushing defeat continued to haunt Rudolf and only abated nigh on a decade later when the conviction was overturned in the retrial, due in no small part to his efforts. Rudolf explains these contrasting and lasting emotions.
‘It was incredibly frustrating for me and incredibly gratifying when in 2011, I was able to prove to Judge Hudson that Deaver had committed perjury and Hudson moved that way,’ he says. ‘It was a rollercoaster, in 2003, we were at the bottom of that rollercoaster and in 2011 we were up the top.’
Even to us viewers observing all the developments in the lengthy trial(s) through the sumptuous safety of our living room, we still vicariously feel the tension proliferating on the defence team. In order to relieve this otherwise unbearable tension, Rudolf and the others employed a unique brand of humour.
‘During the trial, absolutely, you break the tension with gallow humour,’ he says. ‘That’s my way of trying to maintain my sanity in a situation that is just so incredibly stressful because you have another person’s life in your hands. The responsibility of that can be overwhelming, if you let it be.’
Rudolf was not alone in this thinking, noting that both the Peterson brothers opted to use the self-same humour in order to stave off the encroaching anguish inherent in such an uphill battle. ‘It was just so stressful for them that the only way they could really release it, without screaming, was to use that sort of gallow humour. Yeah, I think there’s a lot of that there. I think that people understand where that comes from, it’s not meant to be disrespectful of anyone, or anything, it really is just a way of trying to relieve the tension.’
Galvanised by the gross injustice their camp faced, the roles of client and counsel naturally became more blurred during this long, onerous journey. Rudolf describes what he considers their relationship to have been and what it has evolved into, lasting to this day.
‘We formed a close professional relationship, but not a personal friendship,’ he clarifies. ‘I tried very hard to keep my professional life and my personal life separate, I think that that’s important.’
He also reveals that, even though his job of having the liberty of the ageing Peterson reinstated has long since been concluded, they nevertheless keep in semi-regular contact. ‘I just spoke with him last week, just to see how he was doing. I know he’s working on a book that I think is going to be self-published and a website.’
Rudolf lastly reflects on his overall experience, overall the gruelling years and the countless trials and tribulations encompassed within this one case. Though he suffered tremendous emotional and psychological strain spearheading the defence of such a Sisyphean case, Rudolf retains a prevailingly positive attitude, including that he wouldn’t alter anything within his control. He also remains particularly pleased with agreeing to the documentary in the first place.
‘Viewers now have a real understanding, of what criminal defence lawyers do on a daily basis when they represent somebody,’ he says. ‘I think that’s really important insight for people to have, because they are so often exposed to false images in T.V., and in the movies. So, I’m very happy that we were able to correct some of that through this particular documentary.’
Though the events of that case are forever committed to film for posterity, those not sated by binging on the series on Netflix alone, need not fret any longer. Rudolf is set to join members of the defence team for Making A Murderer, in a series of tours visiting Australia. Head to this website to find out more and get tickets.
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