As indicated in the previous episode, the trial begins. But the creators choose to only show glimpses of it, most prominently the cross-questioning of the Prosecution’s witness Dr. Raddish (the person who prepped the autopsy report) in those first moments.
Episode 4 of The Staircase also allows us to see some more familiar faces in the trial as well. There is also an interview of Michael’s new partner in 2017 when the case saw more action and Michael was released from jail upon entering Alford’s plea (basically, that you are not guilty but confessing guilt based on the evidence against you). The next big event is then lined up: the exhuming of Liz Ratliff. Both are central focuses of the media and press.
Dr. Radisch conducts Liz’s autopsy but the outcome is not good for Michael. She concludes that even Liz was killed using a blunt object and, that she did not die of a brain aneurysm. Martha and Margaret’s nanny from Germany, Agnes, is called as a witness to testify.
Another set of flashbacks reveal Clayton’s troubled state of mind. There is also a brief recollection of a fight he had with Kathleen about his behavior and her supposed high moral ground. Her testimony suggests Mike was abusive towards Martha in her childhood due to his strict disciplinarian tendency. She rushes out of the court, disgusted by the thought, but the situation is momentarily diffused.
Bits from Sophie’s – Mike’s current partner – interview in the present continue in the backdrop of the flashbacks of the trial. The conversations revolve around the meaning of justice, objectivity, and the recent developments in the case. The house is prepared for a visit by the jury members to inspect.
Clayton also drops back unannounced but his return marks a key event in the case. While restoring an unused car in the garage, he finds the “murder weapon” – the blow poke. Once they have it, the Defense feels the tides have turned towards Mike. But they’re unsure of putting Clayton on the stand as a witness as the Prosecution will have a lot of opportunities to malign his character and testimony using his chequered past.
Expert testimonies from the original trial are also shown, like those of Dr. Lee. The general measure of tension has gone up in the Peterson household after the discovery of the blow poke. Though the issue is not legal, the kids have personal conflicts. Mike decides he is going to go on the stand, despite Rudolf’s pleadings but we do not see the same.
The closing arguments bring the trial to a close, and to our surprise, we even have the verdict in the same episode. The Jury finds Mike guilty of murdering Kathleen and he is sentenced to life imprisonment. Like a couple of episodes ago, another reimagined sequence from that night is created – this time, the one where Mike kills Kathleen when she finds out and confronts him about the photos and the emails, as the Prosecution says.
The episode ends with Sophie cutting the documentary in its final shape. It is also revealed that she knows both the documentarians and seems connected to them. They watch the final cut of the original documentary in their home in France.
The Episode Review
As things stand, there is an uncomfortable disconnect in how the events of the entire episode – both in court and off – are being presented to the audience. This episode more or less felt like a personal take by Antonio Campos on the trial and the frustrations that many observers in the legal world have expressed.
Make no mistake – this is a significant case for criminal law students. There is a lot to learn and as a lawyer myself, I can appreciate its nuances. Its peculiarities continue to baffle modern-day experts who have never seen anything quite like this case.
Sophie’s abstract narration in the backdrop of the events as they unfold adds a chilling thrust to the idea that the justice system cannot rid itself of deep-rooted prejudiced opinions. It is Campos’ way to communicate with his audience and beckon the question not as to Mike’s innocence, but how perceptions and appearances can decide the fate of a man’s life. This episode cements the intention of the creators to make it about a bigger, more sinister issue lingering in and haunting probable victims.
It would be a bit crass to call those people victims but it is the fallibility of the institution that decides for the best what their future looks like. There were suggestions that we could soon see a reimagining of the events from that night from the Prosecution’s perspective and we get that in the episode.
For those watching the Peterson drama unfold for the first time, ‘The Staircase’ has now taken an abrupt exit. From here on in, it has become purely about the dynamics of the personal lives of its characters.
The alluring draw of murder, evidence, and witness testimony has quickly evaporated to give way to the more tangible and real substance of human emotions and values. It might be a positive for the show. The execution in the upcoming episodes will tell whether or not this turns out to be true.