Lawyer praises HBO show’s owl theory depiction, but says the rest of it is for the birds

·10 min read

This article contains spoilers from Episode 6 of the HBO Max limited series “The Staircase.”

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For years, Charlotte defense attorney David Rudolf has imagined a scenario in which Durham business executive Kathleen Peterson died not at the hands of her husband, but at the talons of a barred owl — and it’s a scenario he has famously described as “pretty persuasive and credible.”

This week, however, marked the first time the man who defended Michael Peterson has seen a fully realized depiction of that theory.

Toward the end of “The Staircase’s” latest episode, which dropped on the streaming service Thursday, the series presents a third re-creation of Kathleen’s death, following an earlier variation that showed her slipping on a step and falling by accident and another that showed Michael (actor Colin Firth) killing her.

In the one with the owl: Kathleen (actress Toni Collette) is suddenly and savagely attacked by the big bird on the front lawn of their house after setting out a pair of large reindeer Christmas decorations late at night. Bloodied, dazed and confused, she staggers back into the house, then unsteadily starts climbing up the back stairway of their home before pitching backward and collapsing in a heap against the wall near the bottom of the steps.

“It’s what I imagined,” Rudolf said of the re-enactment after watching the sixth installment of the series, a dramatized version of North Carolina’s most notorious true-crime saga. “They did a good job of putting it all together.”

He says the real-life Michael did in fact tell him that the holiday decorations that were in their yard the morning after Kathleen’s death weren’t out there the day before. “I thought they were smaller,” he adds, referring to the lawn ornaments. “I think they are smaller. So the theory was that she’s putting them out, and the owl thinks they’re (prey), and swoops down.”

But aside from having some semblance of appreciation for that sequence, overall, Rudolf was clearly pretty perturbed about what he saw in Episode 6.

“I mean, virtually everything in that episode is false, made up and complete fiction,” he said in summation. “That goes way beyond a dramatization.”

Here is a more specific breakdown of Rudolf’s reactions to what he saw.

The woman who wasn’t there

As seen on TV: In scenes set at the Durham County Courthouse on Feb. 24, 2017, Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg) arrives and has a warm exchange with Peterson and Sophie Brunet (Juliette Binoche) as they prepare to formally enter Peterson’s Alford plea. The filmmaker shooting the docuseries about the case, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon), awaits them in a conference room with three members of his crew, ready to shoot footage.

Vincent Vermignon as Jean-Xavier de Lestrade in the HBO Max series “The Staircase.”
Vincent Vermignon as Jean-Xavier de Lestrade in the HBO Max series “The Staircase.”

With the film camera rolling, Brunet — who in the HBO series is controversially depicted both as the sole and primary editor of the “Staircase” docuseries and as Peterson’s girlfriend in 2017 — sits next to Peterson across from Rudolf as they go over the statement, which starts with the words: “Michael Peterson is innocent.”

The real Rudolf’s reaction: “Sophie was not there when I met with Michael. Ever. Ever. Ever. I don’t believe she even was (in Durham) at the time of the Alford plea. I think they had already stopped seeing each other at that point. I’m relatively confident of that. There’s scenes in the documentary of what happened in court. I think I’d remember if Sophie had been there — and she wasn’t.”

Worth noting: In Episode 12 of the Netflix docuseries “The Staircase,” Rudolf and Peterson are shown meeting to scrutinize the terms of the plea deal on Feb. 22. De Lestrade’s cameras show no one else with them in the room. In Episode 13, on the day of the hearing, there is no conference-room meeting at all, and Brunet is nowhere in sight.

Brunet, in fact, does not appear in the Netflix series at all.

Did Peterson throw a fit at Rudolf?

As seen on TV: Rudolf visits Peterson in prison after Peterson loses his second appeal, and Rudolf explains to his client that they are out of options — no more appeals, no more motions, no re-trial. “For now, it’s over,” the lawyer says. Peterson starts to melt down, at which point Rudolf tells him, “I need to take a step back now, be there for my family.”

He then tells Peterson that he’s getting re-married — to Sonya Pfeiffer (Teri Wyble), a journalist who covered the trial. Peterson is incensed at the idea that Rudolf might have been distracted while working on his case, but Rudolf says, “I was focused 100%.” The two men wind up shouting at each other. When a guard comes to take Peterson back to his cell, Peterson tells Rudolf: “Enjoy your family.”

The real Rudolf’s reaction: “Michael never, ever yelled at me or accused me of not being 100% involved. ... I mean, it’s just pure garbage. I never said to him, ‘I have to pull back,’ in 2006. Ever. Which is what allegedly leads to this explosion that never happened.

“The only time I ever told him I couldn’t go on was in 2014, when I thought they were gonna have to re-try the case, and what I told him was that I lived in Charlotte, that it was 180 miles away from Durham, that I had at that point a 4-year-old, and that I just couldn’t try a case for a month or two. But I put him in touch with Mike Klinkosum. I didn’t just abandon him. I didn’t say, ‘Well, this is goodbye.’ Makes me look bad. I mean, it never happened.”

Worth noting: Although Klinkosum replaced Rudolf in 2014 as Peterson’s court-appointed attorney, Rudolf returned to represent Peterson again in the winter of 2016-2017.

’I never called the kids!’

As seen on TV: Rudolf can be heard in voice-over, making a call to all four of Peterson’s children, who are shown reacting — with shock and dismay — to the news that Michael’s chances of getting his conviction overturned have evaporated. “We’re all gonna have to figure out how to live in a new reality,” Rudolf says. “We’re out of limbo, and we can move on — even if not in the way we had hoped. We’ll be releasing the defense files to the family. So I guess this is goodbye.”

The final shot of this sequence is of a clearly shaken Brunet.

The real Rudolf’s reaction: “I never called the kids! Never! To say, ‘Oh, it’s over’? Never!”

Sophie goes all in on The Owl Theory

As seen on TV: In a scene set in 2006, the Petersons’ neighbor, Larry Pollard (Joel McKinnon Miller), is shown leading Brunet through the woods near his house. It’s during this expedition that Pollard first reveals his belief that an owl was responsible for Kathleen’s death.

Juliette Binoche as Sophie Brunet and Joel McKinnon Miller as Larry Pollard in the HBO Max series “The Staircase.”
Juliette Binoche as Sophie Brunet and Joel McKinnon Miller as Larry Pollard in the HBO Max series “The Staircase.”

Later, Brunet meets with Pollard again, and he shows her a scrapbook of newspaper clippings with headlines like “Horned Owl Injures Man, Dog” and “Owl attacks ... 10-year-old boy ... two dogs ... not uncommon.” He indicates that the attacks happened “in the area.”

Brunet then goes all in, appealing to de Lestrade to include the owl as a suspect in his docuseries (unsuccessfully); shooting her own footage of Pollard explaining his theory; poring over de Lestrade’s footage to look for supporting evidence; helping Pollard with his investigation; reviewing forensic slides at the police station with Durham detective Art Holland (Cory Scott Allen) and meeting with medical examiner Deborah Radisch (Susan Pourfar) in an attempt to re-open the case; and even calling Kathleen’s daughter Caitlin Atwater (Olivia DeJonge) to beg her to sign off on the exhumation of Kathleen’s daughter (unsuccessfully).

The real Rudolf’s reaction: “To my memory, Sophie was not involved in the owl theory. There was a woman from Australia, Ro Hume, who was meeting with Larry Pollard and pursuing the owl theory. It wasn’t Sophie. ...

“Gimme a break. Like, the police are gonna sit there and show her the evidence? Are you kidding me? ... And she never met with the medical examiner, Radisch. Radisch never said, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll look at it again, just get the body exhumed.’ And she also never called Caitlin. Ever. Ever. There was never a discussion about exhuming Kathleen’s body. I mean, to have Sophie calling Caitlin to ask to have her mother’s body exhumed, that’s just sick. That’s sick.”

More on Larry Pollard and the owl

Hearing it for the first time: “Larry Pollard came to my office the weekend before my closing argument, in 2003. Closing arguments were that Monday. He comes in and he says, ‘I think I know what happened to Kathleen.’ Then he proceeds to give me this theory. And he tells me that he’s already gone to (Durham County district attorney) Jim Hardin with the theory, and Jim Hardin essentially threw him out of his office. I said, ‘Well, Larry, what did you expect him to do?’

“But he said, ‘You should argue this.’ I said, ‘I can’t argue this now. There’s no evidence in the record, and I’ve spent the last five months trying to explain to the jury how this was an accidental fall. I can’t now walk into the closing argument and say, ‘Forget about all that, it was really an owl — even though I don’t have any evidence to show you about that.’

“Larry’s a lawyer. I didn’t think he was a crackpot. I just was focusing on my closing argument. So it was more like, ‘Larry, I appreciate it, but I can’t do anything about it.’”

From that point on: “He was disappointed, and then he went out after Michael was convicted, and put this owl theory out there without any support. It became a joke. People were saying, ‘Oh, let’s get the owls in a lineup, and we’ll see which one did it — that kind of stuff. And frankly, there were no (reports of) owl attacks at that time. But years after the trial, there was an owl attack in Fuquay-Varina. It was two guys I think and this owl swooped down on one of them. That was the first time that I actually started thinking, maybe this isn’t nuts.

“Then gradually he built the evidence. As time went on, Google started picking up all these stories from all over the world, and he had experts signing affidavits.”

Durham attorney Larry Pollard uses a mannequin to show how he believes the talons of an owl lacerated the scalp of Kathleen Peterson, causing her death in 2001, during an interview in his Durham office this past April.
Durham attorney Larry Pollard uses a mannequin to show how he believes the talons of an owl lacerated the scalp of Kathleen Peterson, causing her death in 2001, during an interview in his Durham office this past April.

Before the re-trial hearing in 2010: “Larry wanted to file a motion for appropriate relief,” Rudolf says. (Motions for appropriate relief are typically made to correct errors in the judicial process such as proof that a key witness lied or that a defendant had ineffective counsel; basically, the goal by someone filing such a motion is to get a new trial.)

“He wanted to file that based on the owl theory, at the same time that I wanted to file the motion based on (SBI agent Duane) Deaver’s perjury. Larry and I disagreed about that, and Michael finally said, ‘No, we’re gonna go with David’s theory.’ So there was a time when there were competing views about what was the best way of trying to vacate that conviction.”

It would be interesting — very, very interesting — to know what would have happened if Rudolf and Peterson had decided instead to go with the owl theory ...

HBO’s ‘The Staircase’ Episode 6: The Owl Theory takes flight + preparing for Alford