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Real-life The Staircase lawyer, David Rudolf, blasts 'false portrayal' in series

Michael Stuhlbarg and Colin Firth in The Staircase
Michael Stuhlbarg as David Rudolf and Colin Firth as Michael Peterson in The Staircase (Image credit: HBO Max)

David Rudolf, the defense attorney for Michael Peterson throughout the legal proceedings surrounding the death of Kathleen Peterson, had one overriding emotion when he heard that the case was going to be the subject of the drama series, The Staircase — concern. 

"I've seen too many of these things sort of veer off into unrealistic and sort of silly products," Rudolf told What to Watch. "I never thought it would go quite the way it’s gone, where there are just complete falsehoods and false portrayals and things that are presented that are not even close to anything that happened.

"What I was concerned about was sort of the, you know, the things in some movies where some lawyer is yelling at a judge, you know, or just doing something stupid in court or whatever. Those are the things that I personally was concerned about, I didn’t want to be depicted as an idiot."

Debuting on HBO Max and Sky/NOW TV in May and with its finale on Thursday, June 9, Rudolf believes that The Staircase has gone places in its depiction he never dreamed of.

The story of the Michael Peterson case had been told before in the documentary series The Staircase by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, in which Rudolf is a central figure. When the new series was being made, Rudolf says he spoke a number of times with creator Antonio Campos and spent a day and a half with Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays him in the series. All of that just makes him even more baffled in how they depict him.

"They completely misrepresented my relationship with Michael and what I did and why I did it," Rudolf explains.

Michael Stuhlbarg and Colin Firth in The Staircase

Michael Stuhlbarg and Colin Firth in The Staircase (Image credit: HBO Max)

In The Staircase series, the Petersons are shown as being forced to sell off many of their possessions, in order to keep the appeal process going, after Michael (played by Colin Firth) is found guilty in the first trial. In episode 7, when new information that could help Michael comes to light, Bill Peterson (Tim Guinee) goes to Rudolf’s office and tells him that he is going to pursue this new information and that he’s going to do it for free. According to Rudolf, the payment issue was a fabrication.

"They [the filmmakers] knew that for 14 years after the verdict I didn’t take a single penny for anything I did in connection with Michael’s case," he says. "I did that because I wanted to make it right. … I was trying to make something, that I thought was terribly wrong, right. And instead, they portray me as requiring Michael to sell his furniture to finance the appeal."

To clarify, Michael Peterson was initially found guilty of murdering Kathleen Peterson in 2003. An appeal process followed and new information about the case was revealed across 14 years, with Peterson ultimately accepting an Alford Plea to voluntary manslaughter in 2017, which allowed him to maintain his innocence while acknowledging there was enough evidence to convict him. Peterson was then released from prison with time already served.

Rudolf says that part of the reason he agreed to do the original documentary was that he wanted to give people a better idea of what criminal defense lawyers do — rather than how they’re often portrayed in fictional TV shows. He continues to try and detail some of the lesser-known aspects of America’s justice system in his new book, American Injustice: Inside Stories from the Underbelly of the Criminal Justice System (opens in new tab), where he provides real-life examples of abuses of power and how they impact innocent people. It includes a chapter on elements detailed in The Staircase.

It isn’t only Rudolf who’s complained about their depiction in The Staircase. The real-life de Lestrade and Sophie Brunet (played by Vincent Vermignon and Juliette Binoche in the series) told Vanity Fair (opens in new tab) they feel "betrayed" by The Staircase for attacking the credibility of their work. Rudolf agreed, believing that the filmmakers are shown in the series making the documentary in a way that would help prove Michael Peterson’s innocence, claiming it strikes at "their very integrity."

"I get dramatization," Rudolf says. "I get that they have to condense an hour-long meeting or a two-hour meeting into two minutes, I get that. But be true to the substance. And they’re not trying to be true to the substance."

Rudolf’s viewpoint on the show is not given blindly, as he has watched every episode of The Staircase, even detailing what he believes to be inaccurate in each episode for The Charlotte Observer (opens in new tab).

Colin Firth and Toni Collette in The Staircase

Colin Firth and Toni Collette star as Michael and Kathleen Peterson in The Staircase (Image credit: HBO Max)

As of publication, HBO has not responded to a request for comment from What to Watch.

The Staircase is not the only example of a recent TV series based on real-life that has drawn the ire of its subjects. Most notably, Winning Time, which chronicles the rise of the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1980s, received criticism from the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabar and Jerry West, the latter of which demanded a retraction and public apology for what he believed was a "baseless and defamatory portrayal."

In Rudolf’s opinion, the issue is that many of these shows are "falsifying the truth about living people."

"There have been a number of people who have basically said, 'hey, that’s just false and you’re defaming me and it’s derogatory and who gives you the right to do that,'" Rudolf says.

Check out What to Watch's breakdown of some of the major facts surrounding The Staircase right here. The Staircase finale launches on HBO Max and Sky/NOW TV on June 9.

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Peaky Blinders, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Saturday Night Live, Only Murders in the Building and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun.