Does a defendant’s sexuality have any place in a murder trial?
If you’re a true crime fan, you know there’s no shortage of books, documentaries, podcasts and original reporting dedicated to the victims of violent crimes and the people who commit those crimes. At the same time, we know that cases that get the most attention are usually ones that are committed against white, middle class, cisgender people. Meanwhile hate crimes, including murders of gay, trans and non-binary people are on the rise. Queer Crime is a monthly column focusing on true crime with an LGBTQ+ spin whether it’s the victim or the perpetrator.
This month, we’re looking at one of the most well-known cases in the last couple decades thanks to the 2004 documentary The Staircase. In 2003, Michael Peterson was convicted of murdering his wife, Kathleen after she was found dead at the bottom of the stairs in their home. After multiple appeals, he was granted a new trial in 2011. In 2017, he entered an Alford plea to the reduced charge of manslaughter which allowed him to maintain his innocence but also acknowledge that there was enough evidence to convict him. He was sentenced to time served and released after spending 8 years behind bars.
As for what really happened to Kathleen, it’s still a mystery. A new HBO miniseries that came out earlier this year, also titled The Staircase, stars Colin Firth as Michael Peterson and Toni Collette as Kathleen. It includes re-enactments of some exact scenes from the documentary and hypothetical re-enactments of three theories for how Kathleen died. One of the theories is that Kathleen found gay porn on Michael’s computer, confronted him about it and he murdered her in a rage. This, along with the fact that Michael was having affairs with men, is also the motive the prosecution presented to the jury at trial.
If you’ve watched The Staircase documentary, you probably know that Michael’s defense is built around his assertion that Kathleen knew he was bisexual and was okay with it. In the documentary, Michael says, “I think that there was enough awareness on her part of me as a person and who I was, which is what made this relationship so good, that yes, she understood these aspects [bisexuality] about me and was not bothered about that because I loved her.” Michael admits they never explicitly talked about his sexuality or agreed on an open relationship, but according to him they didn’t need to.
Whether this is true or not is impossible to say, but the prosecution worked hard to convince the jury there was no way someone like Kathleen would be okay with her husband sleeping with men. In the early 2000s, homosexuality and bisexuality were still considered ‘deviant’ by many and the prosecution used this to characterize Michael as someone who was capable of murder.
Michael and Kathleen shared a blended family with five children, four of whom stood behind him throughout the trial, during his incarceration and after his release. They believed Michael would never do anything to hurt Kathleen, but the idea of Michael living some kind of “double life” because he was bisexual was a difficult hurdle to clear for his defense team. Michael has been vocal about how he believes his sexuality influenced the jury’s opinion of him. “Of course that had to have an impact! Why does that translate into murder? It made no sense at all, but it certainly went there, it is in the juror’s head,” he says in The Staircase (2004).
Freda Black, the Assistant District Attorney for the prosecution dedicated a portion of her closing argument to how she assumed Kathleen would feel about Michael’s bisexuality.
“Do you really believe that Kathleen knew? That Mr. Peterson was bisexual? Does that make common sense to you, that it was okay with her to go to work while he stayed at home and communicated by email and telephone with people he was planning on having sex with?” Black asked the jury. “You saw the rest of the things on his computer. Once again, these things are so filthy we can even show them on TV. Filth. Pure filth. This isn’t people involved in a relationship. This is any which-a-way. This is called hard core porn. Do you think she approved of this type of activity while she’s off at work, or sleeping? I argue to you that doesn’t make sense. And that’s not the way that soulmates conduct themselves. That is not.”
In an interview with NewNowNext, Peterson’s attorney David Rudolf accused the prosecution and specifically Freda Black of gay bashing. He believes that her approach wouldn’t work in court today. “There’s a greater tolerance about people’s sexual practices and preferences, so I’m not sure that the argument that two people aren’t soulmates because one of them is bisexual is going to fly in 2018 the way it did in 2003.”
Even Judge Orlando Hudson, who presided over the first trial and eventually granted Peterson a new trial in 2017 believed he wasn’t treated fairly. “Over the years, you can see how with time and more examination of the evidence that did come in, it wasn’t without prejudice,” Orlando said in the Netflix 2018 three-episode update to The Staircase. “I thought that all the homosexual evidence, however it was used, would have been unduly prejudice to the defense and probably should not have come into evidence.”
Whether Michael Peterson is innocent of his wife’s murder or not, his sexuality shouldn’t have had anything to do with it. Instead it was presented as part of the motive and proof that he was capable of murder. There were many instances that showed him to be dishonest and the prosecution could have focused on infidelity as a possible motive but instead they chose to make it about his sexuality.
We’ll probably never know what really happened to Kathleen Peterson, but the case is an extreme example of how harshly people can be judged based on their sexuality—even in something as important as a murder trial.
For more of Courtney Hardwick’s fascinating QUEER CRIME series click here.