When Kathleen Peterson was found dead at the foot of the staircase in her home on December 9, 2001, it was initially accepted as an accident. As the case became national news, suspects and theories started to arise. Eventually, her husband, Michael Peterson, became a prime suspect. Michael was found guilty, according to The News & Observer, and eventually released from prison in 2011. (Peterson maintains his innocence to this day.) Mixed in with all of the mystery that stems around the case came one theory that still has people talking today. The owl theory on The Staircase is one solution some people have come up with for Kathleen's death, that although it hasn't been proven, remains a highly talked about possibility. (Romper reached out to Michael Peterson's representatives and Netflix for additional statements.)
Michael Peterson was arrested and found guilty of first-degree murder, according to The News & Observer, leading to a life sentence that was recently overturned because of a plea deal. In 2011 he was released from prison and granted a retrial, which led to him entering an Alford plea in 2017. An Alford plea is when someone admits that the evidence in a case is sufficient to convict them, though they insist upon their innocence. Contradictory though it may seem, that allowed him to plead guilty to manslaughter while maintaining that he did not kill Kathleen. WRAL reported that he was released on time served.
Those who believe Michael's claims of innocence have tried to find an explanation for Kathleen's death. She had wounds on her head consistent with being struck, but no weapon or other suspect has ever surfaced. If Michael didn't do it, who (or what) did? Enter the owl theory.
An attorney and former neighbor of the Petersons' named T. Lawrence Pollard first put forth the theory. Barred owls were native to the Durham suburbs where they lived and, according to Crime Feed, attacks on joggers were not uncommon. There was possible evidence on Kathleen's body, too. Some of her hair had been torn out and found grasped in her hands. Microscopic feathers were discovered in her hair as well as wood splinters and cedar needles. Theory believers felt that the wounds on her head could have been caused by talons.
The speculation is that Kathleen was attacked by an owl outside, where it became somewhat tangled in her hair. There was allegedly an indication that she had bled outside the home, then she stumbled inside where, frantic and injured, she took a spill down the stairs. The News & Observer quoted Dr. Patrick T. Retig as saying, upon viewing Kathleen's medical records:
In my professional opinion, the hypothesized attack to her face and back of the head resulting in the various punctures and lacerations visible in the autopsy photographs is entirely within the behavioral repertoire of large owls.
Michael's defense attorney at the time, Mary Jude Darrow, found the theory credible, telling Audubon, "When you look at her injuries, they do appear consistent with being made by an owl's talons." However, that didn't mean she would plunge ahead with it in a trial, as she added, "But I would hate to risk my client's life or future on that argument."
There were other explanations for the feathers and debris, especially since they were so small. Kathleen and Michael had reportedly spent time outside before her death, and it's possible some debris could have found its way onto her. An owl attack also wouldn't account for the bruising on her face and arms, which has been speculated to be defensive marks, or the signs of strangulation on her throat. According to WRAL, state Medical Examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch told jurors during the 2003 trial that Kathleen had crushed thyroid cartilage, which "suggest someone tried to manually strangle her." An owl probably wouldn't be able to do that.
The owl theory is a plausible one at first, but it doesn't account for everything presented in the case. When Netflix revisits the docuseries The Staircase on June 8, it might provide the second look necessary to finally make sense of what happened the night Kathleen Peterson died.