Spoiler Alert! Spoilers for “The Staircase” ahead.
Chapter 6: The Prosecution’s Revenge
What Really Happened to Liz Ratliff?
We knew that the prosecution was determined to prejudice the jury against Michael as a person. They knew it would make the weaknesses in their case less important to the jury. The trial judge allowed them to do just that.
First, he allowed the prosecution to introduce evidence that Michael was bi-sexual and had contacted a male escort via a website several months before Kathleen’s death. Michael had never actually met with “Brad,” but the prosecution speculated that Kathleen had coincidentally discovered their email exchange on December 9, and that this had led to a violent and deadly argument. As it turned out, the prosecution offered no evidence to support their speculation. But the damage was done. The jury was allowed to read Mike’s email exchanges with “Brad,” which were sexually explicit, and to view the nude photos Brad had sent Mike. We could see the effect these had on the jurors, and it wasn’t pretty to watch.
But the most prejudicial evidence was provided by a trio of women who claimed to have seen a large amount of blood at the scene of Liz Ratliff’s death, describing the scene in exactly the same language, and as very similar to the scene in the Peterson stairway – large amounts of blood all over the walls going up the staircase. Had the scene been as these women described it, it seemed likely that both the German police and the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division (CID) would have investigated the death as a possible murder – and that these women, who were Liz’s friends, would have requested such an investigation. But that didn’t happen.
Most importantly, their descriptions were completely inconsistent with the contemporaneous report written by the investigator employed by the CID. He specifically reported there was only a small amount of blood immediately under Liz’s head.
We believed the testimony of these witnesses was the result of what memory experts call “confabulation.” Art Holland, the lead detective, had gone to Germany and interviewed them. They therefore knew what the police believed Michael had done to Kathleen, and the alleged similarities in Kathleen and Liz’s deaths. They had then unconsciously “filled in” the gaps in their 17-year old memories with “details” that were consistent with what they had come to believe were the similarities in the deaths.
This well-recognized psychological phenomenon had been exacerbated when the prosecution brought these women to the United States several weeks before they were to testify, housing them in the same hotel, and taking them out to a joint dinner just before they testified. One person’s confabulated “memory” could thereby contaminate another’s “memory” of the events. They had had bonded, we believed, and did not want to testify inconsistently with each other. They weren’t consciously lying, but their “truth” was not reality. However, we knew that cross-examining these witnesses, who were justifiably emotional about Liz’s death, was a delicate exercise. We couldn’t imply they were lying, but we had to dispute the accuracy of their testimony.
I just want to say that I respect the hell out of you. As I watched the documentary you can see the frustration develop within the defence team as everything they put forward was rejected by the court and by the media. I want to wholeheartedly believe that Michael is innocent of everything, and I think I do, but the mystery of Kathleens death is very compelling. Nonetheless, I feel like someone should come out as a complete outsider (Ottawa, Canada) and thank you for all the work you do to help, not only Michael, but every other defendant as well. As I continued watching the series, I kept getting surprised by the amount of work you put in and how articulate you are. Honestly, I can’t put it into words, but I just want to thank you for everything. I also really like your smile. Every time you laughed in the series, your smile gave off a wonderful glow and I hope you continue to smile throughout your career and in your personal life.
You are the most not only intelligent attorney that I’ve ever had the privilege of watching but the most caring and loyal as well. I’m blown away by your tenacity. I have never seen a more heart felt presentation in my life.
Thank you for all your reflections. It really added another layer to this story. I am outraged at how the media tried this case initially. The fact the judge allowed the death of Ratliff and his bisexuality to be entered in court is prejudicial to the max. You put on a remarkable defense against all odds. I do believe Mr. Petersen is innocent.
David I am a conservative Christian pastor. As I watch this series I am blown away by the deep feelings of hatred that are apparent in the whole prosecution team. They quickly decide that a conservative mostly black jury will be turned off by homosexual character of Mike. In our religion we learn to love our enemy. While I don’t consider gay folks my enemy I would say that a civil servant ought to treat every citizen with proper respect and dignity. I think you showed that in all that you did. The respect and dignity you afforded all sides is amazing. I think he was convicted of being gay and conceited.
I find you a remarkable attorney, David. You were extremely indefatigable throughout the many years this case drudged along. I feel the cards were stacking against you all from the beginning. I found it most odd that the judge behaved in the ways that he did…almost like he conspired with the state. Allowing the bi-sexual stuff and the details about Liz Ratliff really baffled me. I also found it shocking that he allowed the body to be exhumed and paraded across the country to have the local, biased Dr. Radisch do an examination was ludicrous.
At any rate, it’s amazing you stuck by your client til the bitter end. And the fact that you believed so fervently in his innocence convinced me, as well.