Charlotte defense lawyer on new episode of HBO’s ‘Staircase’: ‘It’s just so annoying’

·8 min read

David Rudolf, the Charlotte attorney who represented Michael Peterson in the murder trial immortalized in the docuseries “The Staircase,” has suddenly found himself back in two familiar places: on the defense, and in the spotlight.

Since shortly after the early-May release of the HBO Max limited series that was adapted from the documentary, Rudolf has been making the media rounds in support of the documentary’s filmmakers allegations that the dramatized series’ filmmakers have twisted the truth.

The effect, Rudolf and members of the original “Staircase” team argue, is that the new show gives off the impression that the work the documentarians did was biased in favor of Peterson.

It’s an enormously complex situation — one we’ve tried our best to explain here — that hinges heavily on a real-life film editor named Sophie Brunet and the fictionalized depiction of her and her motives on the HBO show as imagined by series creator Antonio Campos and as acted by Juliette Binoche.

And it seems to be turning into a big deal.

Why is the director of ‘The Staircase’ docuseries so upset by HBO Max’s dramatization?

“It should be a big deal,” says Rudolf, who has done recent interviews with Variety, Vanity Fair and the feminist blog Jezebel, in addition to having just written a guest column for Newsweek. “It’s just so annoying to hear them present this as though it was some sort of reality-based thing.”

At the heart of the controversy are scenes in Episode 5, released Thursday, in which Binoche’s Brunet engages in arguments involving documentary director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade (Vincent Vermignon) and producer, Denis Poncet (Frank Feys) that suggest she is the chief editor of the film; and that show her lobbying for the inclusion of a family scene that makes Peterson sympathetic over a courtroom scene that reinforces the idea that he is guilty of murder.

Among other contested points: Throughout the episode, Binoche’s Brunet sends letters to Firth’s Peterson saying she is working hard on the documentary and hopes it will help with his appeal for a new trial; near its end, she is shown with de Lestrade at the premiere, after which he tells her she was “the beating heart” of the film.

Juliette Binoche as Sophie Brunet in the HBO Max series “The Staircase.”
Juliette Binoche as Sophie Brunet in the HBO Max series “The Staircase.”

The real-life de Lestrade and multiple collaborators on the project contend that the real-life Brunet never edited courtroom scenes and left “The Staircase” in October 2003 to work on a different film before the first eight episodes were anywhere near completed. She didn’t begin writing to Peterson, they say, until after her departure.

“It’s just unbelievable what this guy did with those scenes,” Rudolf says, referring to Campos. “I mean, I don’t know how that’s not defamatory. You know, you allege that somebody had an ulterior motive to make a documentary? ... The guy makes a film about the subjectivity of making a documentary, and then he lies about the facts. Really? How ironic is that?”

(HBO stopped responding to requests to interview Campos after initially offering to make him and his co-showrunner Maggie Cohn available for interviews before the premiere earlier this month.)

Here is a curated selection of Rudolf’s reactions to other key moments in Episode 5.

Did Peterson get beat up in prison?

As seen on TV: In a prison scene at the beginning of the episode — set in April 2004, six months after the verdict — Michael Peterson (Colin Firth) is shown with a face full of nasty-looking bruises and cuts as well as significant bruises on his back. Apparently, another prisoner who was in line for a private cell lost his place because Peterson was able to skip the line due to his fame.

When David Rudolf (Michael Stuhlbarg) comes to visit Peterson in prison to update him on the appeals process, Michael tells him: “The longer I’m in here, the more likely it is I’m gonna get killed.” Peterson seems irritated with Rudolf in this scene, and even more angry at him in a later one depicting a phone conversation between the two men that takes place right after one of his appeals is denied.

Peterson eventually strikes a deal with a group of prisoners in which he trades postage stamps for protection.

The real Rudolf’s reaction: “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I had no knowledge that Michael had this sort of problem in the prison. Never heard that from him.” Rudolf says he did visit Michael in prison, but “certainly never saw him with black eyes and cuts and things. ... I mean, the reality is, if he had told me that, I had people I could have called at the Department of Correction to inquire about that.”

As for the couple of scenes in which Peterson appears to be angry, Rudolf says, “I never got the sense that he was. Ever. I got the sense he was frustrated at the system. As I was. But never did he ever take it out on me in that way. I guess there may be some dramatic reasoning for that. But that didn’t happen.”

The real-life Michael Peterson, left, discusses case strategy with real-life attorney David Rudolf in a scene from “The Staircase” documentary series.
The real-life Michael Peterson, left, discusses case strategy with real-life attorney David Rudolf in a scene from “The Staircase” documentary series.

‘To keep writing you checks’

As seen on TV: As Peterson’s children make preparations for an estate sale, Michael’s brother, Bill (Tim Guinee), is shown having a somewhat contentious talk on the phone with Rudolf. Frustrated with how slowly the appeals process is working, Bill tells Rudolf: “I’m selling everything the man owned to keep writing you checks.”

The real Rudolf’s reaction: He says that’s false. “We charged him a flat fee for the trial — and we charged him a flat fee based not on a five-month trial. The reality is that from the time that verdict came in until the case eventually settled, we never asked for another penny. We did the appeal as court-appointed lawyers being paid by the state of North Carolina. And after the appeal, I represented him for another decade pro bono. ... So that’s the screenwriter’s attempt to inject some sort of, I don’t know, conflict or tension, or greed on the part of the defense lawyers.”

“I don’t think that really matters to the heart of the story, but it’s misleading and annoying to me.”

About the fractured cartilage...

As seen on TV: Sophie Brunet reviews a courtroom scene on her computer that shows Rudolf cross-examining prosecution witness Deborah Radisch (Susan Pourfar), the medical examiner. He says to her: “The fractured cartilage in Kathleen’s thyroid indicates a strangulation attempt is merely possible.” She replies: “I would say it was highly, highly likely an attempt at strangulation was made.” Rudolf says: “But can you say that with a reasonable degree of medical certainty?” Radisch replies: “Yes, yes I can.”

Later, when arguing for that scene to be kept in the film, documentary producer Denis Poncet (Frank Feys) says: “The jurors said they convicted him on the physical evidence, specifically citing Radisch’s testimony about the cartilage.”

The real Rudolf’s reaction: “I don’t think I asked that open-ended question to Deborah Radisch. ... Why would I do that? ... But putting that to one side, our experts said, number one, it (the fractured cartilage) could have been postmortem. In other words, it could have been done during the autopsy itself. And number two, if it wasn’t, that injury can occur in various ways, including — as I think Sophie says in the show there — through a fall, or in that swimming pool accident. With cartilage, there’s no blood flow there, so it doesn’t necessarily heal very well, or rapidly.

The real-life Deborah Radisch, photographed during her testimony in court in 2003.
The real-life Deborah Radisch, photographed during her testimony in court in 2003.

“It was a disputed point. So to put that much emphasis on it ... it inflates the importance of that beyond what it was, because I think if you go back and even look at (the prosecution’s) closing argument, I don’t recall there being a whole lot about the cartilage.”

As for the jurors, Rudolf says they never said what Poncet’s character suggests. “They said they relied on (the prosecution’s blood spatter expert, Duane) Deaver. ... They said, ‘It was the blood, it was the blood, it was the blood.’ ... The cause of death was never listed as a strangulation. Ever. Deborah Radisch never said the cause of death was strangulation.”

More on the suggestion that the docuseries was biased

“I thought that there were things left out on both sides of the ledger,” Rudolf says. “It’s hard for me to give you a balanced impression, because obviously I’m looking at it with a prejudiced eye, if you will. But what I always come back to is this: They (the real-life French filmmakers) included the scene where the woman from Germany talks about all the blood and all the gore on the floor, and we had the Army CID expert — the investigator who was at the scene — saying there wasn’t all that blood. We introduced his report. He was a witness at the trial, and he directly contradicted the woman’s testimony. But none of that appears (in the documentary).

“So could I complain that that skewed the whole Germany thing, in a way that wasn’t fair to Michael? Absolutely. But I get it. You can’t include everything.

“Anyway, if that’s their big complaint — that they didn’t put in Deborah Radisch’s testimony about the cartilage — I mean, they also didn’t put in our expert’s counter-testimony. We had our expert disputing it. So if you’re gonna put one in, then you gotta put both in.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting