Justice Thinks Again
Dokoupil, Tony, Newsweek
Byline: Tony Dokoupil
'The Staircase' revisits a jailed man--and the shoddy case against him.
"Everyone in prison is an innocent man," or so goes the best line in chain-gang culture. Stephen King gave it to Red, the wizened lifer in the cult novella Shawshank Redemption. It played as a joke back then, both in the book and the movie. And yet scarcely two decades later, Red's line is less a joke than a simple description, a slowly unfolding fact of American life. Every week, on average, the prisons of America discharge another newly exonerated soul, cleared of an old crime and restored to the world of socked feet and premium cable. They are the lucky ones, part of a national movement to right every judicial wrong.
But the work is slow, and the human toll is already in the hundreds of lifetimes, an average of 13 lost years per person from arrest to exoneration. The best estimates say that about 5 percent of the U.S. prison population is innocent, including at least 2 percent of inmates on death row. That's more than 100,000 undeserving people doing hard time, another 36 waiting to die. If accurate, it's perhaps the most acute moral crisis in America today.
What's going wrong? Here's an easy way to experience the rough carriage ride of national justice: watch The Staircase, a 10-episode documentary now playing on the Sundance Channel. Complete with two new parts and rare footage of junk forensics--the signature flaw in modern trials--The Staircase is the scariest portrait of criminal justice since the nonfiction film that helped launch the modern innocence movement, Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line. It's scarier, in fact, because The Staircase isn't based on re-creations but on original footage, a front-row view of legal truth as it's feathered into existence, manufactured from guesses and conjecture, and sold to a jury as more or less believable fiction.
"In America," says Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, the French director of the film and a lawyer by training, "no one is really looking for the truth. Each side is trying to tell a story."
De Lestrade won an Oscar for his 2001 documentary, Murder on a Sunday Morning, the triumphant story of a poor black teen wrongly charged with killing a tourist in Jacksonville, Florida. The teen, as de Lestrade showed, was less a suspect than a symbol, his trial a neon sign flicked on to announce that Jacksonville was still "Open for Business."
The Oscar helped de Lestrade win the access he needed for The Staircase, which follows the case of Michael Peterson, a then 60-year-old novelist, rich and white, a pipe-smoker in tortoise-shell glasses, who in December 2001 was accused of killing his wife Kathleen with a blow-poke in the couple's many-gabled mansion in Durham, North Carolina. The trial was national news, and the documentary, which originally aired in eight parts on the Sundance Channel in 2005, was heralded as a masterpiece of suspense.
Now de Lestrade has brought the case through to the present day. No spoilers here: clarity on Peterson's guilt or innocence is not forthcoming. He claims that his wife fell down a narrow, poorly lit stairway in their home and bled to death while he sat by the pool, out of earshot, finishing some wine; the state claims he beat his wife, took a break, then finished the job. Only Michael knows which story is true. But what does become clear is the speed with which all holes in the evidence against him were vulcanized in the rush to conviction.
"Truth is lost in all this now. Truth is of no meaning whatsoever," Peterson says, plausibly, midway through the trial. "This has become a show, and it's got its own momentum. We're just going along."
This spectacle of stories is present from the very first episode, when Peterson calls 911, hysterically crying, and reports his wife's fall. His kids believe him, as do his ex-wife and a parade of friends. Everyone describes a perfect marriage, a gentle man, a charmed life. …