Belfast Telegraph

Sunday Life

The Staircase attorney David Rudolf to give talks in Belfast

"I want to be told about NI injustices," says lawyer who specialises in miscarriages of justice.

By Martin Breen

The Staircase TV series has become the latest true-crime obsession with passionate debates about whether the series' subject is innocent or guilty of killing his wife.

Local audiences of the hit Netflix documentary will soon have the chance to get a unique glimpse into the case of US author Michael Peterson when his crusading attorney will host live discussions in Belfast later this year.

David Rudolf, who specialises in alleged miscarriages of justice, told Sunday Life he is looking forward to hearing about any such potential cases here ahead of two sold-out appearances at the city's Elmwood Hall on November 30 and December 9 - his first visit to these shores.

"Belfast sold out the fastest of any show anywhere in the world. It was like sold out in four hours so it is just amazing. It makes sense because the people in Belfast have been through the wringer over the years and no matter what side of the Troubles they were on, there was a lot of stuff that shouldn't have happened and I think they are particularly over-sensitive to government overreach and human rights and the rights of people.

"One of the things I want to do before I get over there and speak is educate myself about some of the more controversial cases that have taken place over the years there," he said.

The 69-year-old lawyer, who lives in Charlotte in North Carolina, will give a fascinating insight into how he defended Peterson who was convicted of the 2001 murder of his wife, Kathleen. She was found in a pool of blood at the bottom of the stairs of their home in Durham, North Carolina.

The novelist and one-time mayoral candidate was convicted and sentenced to life without parole but was granted a new trial in 2011 after a judge ruled that a key prosecution witness, former state crime lab blood analyst Duane Deaver, had lied on the stand during the original trial. In February 2017, Peterson (now 74) was released on appeal after a plea bargain to the reduced charge of voluntary manslaughter.

Defence attorney Rudolf, who spent 16 years working on the Peterson case, is adamant his client was innocent of any involvement in her death and believes The Staircase series has helped show why he was wrongfully convicted.

He said: "We are in regular contact. Mike has been very, very private through all of this. He has not given any formal interviews and he has no desire to have any publicity about all of this.

"He is living his life the way he did before the series started. He spends a lot of time with his grandchildren or travelling to see his family or writing in his apartment, going to the gym, going to the grocery store, just everyday sort of things.

"I think the major change is how many people now recognise that at the minimum, there was reasonable doubt in that trial and that he should not have been convicted. Even people who watched it and say I think he's guilty also say, 'But I would have never voted beyond reasonable doubt'. I think that has got to make him feel a bit more vindicated than he has felt in quite some time.

"I have never believed Michael was guilty. I never saw any evidence to support the prosecution's theory and all the evidence I ever saw was consistent with him not being guilty."

Fans of The Staircase have been particularly interested in the so-called owl theory which suggests 48-year-old business executive Kathleen Peterson was clawed by the owl and bled to death in an unprovoked attack after it latched onto her head.

Those who support this claim point to the discovery of microscopic feathers found in her hand. The theory was never presented in court because it never emerged until the trial was almost over.

Rudolf doesn't believe, however, that it merits a Staircase 2.

The lawyer, who is an avid Van Morrison fan, explained: "I actually think it's (the owl theory) probably the most plausible theory right now. That's not to say I can prove that it happened. When you look at all the evidence, the little blood drops that were outside the house, the blood smear on the doorframe leading into the house, the nature of the wounds, you look at all that stuff together and in terms of how the initial injuries to her scalp that started the bleeding were inflicted, I think it is the most plausible thing right now.

"It's certainly more plausible than Michael beating her to death in the narrow stairway with a blowpoke.

"For me, the real point of the documentary is not whether Michael is guilty or not guilty, whether an owl inflicted the initial wounds or not. The real point of the documentary to me is the extent to which it exposes really fundamental problems in the criminal justice system."

He is considering writing a book which will feature the Peterson case and others, and "talking about the importance of standing up to authority".

"I think that's an important message right now, given what's going on in the world with authoritarian regimes sprouting up all over and democracy really in retreat in a lot of places," he said.

n Inside The Staircase With David Rudolf is at the Elmwood Hall in Belfast on November 27 and December 9. Tickets are sold out.

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