This summer, I have become fascinated by a true crime story that is 17 years old. Thanks to a couple of podcasts and a Netflix docuseries, I stayed up nights thinking about a novelist who was on trial for the murder of his wife.
This is the story of Michael and Kathleen Peterson.
Now, I am conflicted by the “entertainment value” of true crime, especially those in which someone dies. The tragic reality in the Peterson story is that an innocent woman lost her life. And Kathleen isn’t the only victim, as you will see if you watch The Staircase.
And yet, this was one case that wholly absorbed—and disturbed—me. I’ll tell you why….
In December 2001, Michael Peterson called 911 when he found his wife, Kathleen, barely alive and bleeding at the bottom of the stairs. He said she must have fallen, and yet that very night, he would become the main murder suspect in a drama that would not conclude for another fifteen years.
Prior to his wife’s death, Peterson had been writing for a North Carolina newspaper, the Durham Herald-Sun. His column criticized local law enforcement in Durham, including the district attorney who would prosecute him.
In the docuseries, we see Kathleen’s sisters making copies of pages Michael had written, which they felt pointed to his guilt in their sister’s death. Michael Peterson wrote war novels. I haven’t read them, but I’m sure there’s some killing in there somewhere.
Someone even said something to the tune of “He’s a fiction writer. He makes things up.” This was meant to say that he was lying when he said he didn’t kill Kathleen.
The reason this docuseries so intrigued me was because I could put myself in the shoes of every character, who so happen to be real people with real feelings. And I felt some of those feelings as I watched. I couldn’t look away, and I couldn’t stop thinking about those people when I wasn’t watching.
But the other reason for my fascination is that Michael is a writer. I’m also a writer. I would be outraged if someone read my fiction and decided that I must be a liar because I made up a story—or, worse, that I wanted to hurt someone because one of my characters did.
I also happen to be serving on a jury panel in my county for the summer term. So these days I’m thinking a lot about the judicial system in our country. Does it work? Are novelists, journalists, and other writers safe in this country that prides itself on freedom of speech?
So I started researching this. It wasn’t easy, but I’ll list some of my findings here: writers in court or in prison for what they wrote.
But please talk to me. If I missed somebody (and I know I did), let me know in the comments. Did you watch The Staircase? Do you think Michael Peterson killed his wife? I want to know.
I would also recommend the two-part podcast by Generation Why:
And after you watch the docuseries, you must hear the “Owl Theory.” The Criminal podcast produced an interesting show about this theory, titled “Animal Instincts”; click here to listen.
Writers on Trial or Imprisoned:
Voltaire was a French writer during the Enlightenment. He was not shy about criticizing the Catholic Church and the French government. But they were not the only victims of his pen. When Voltaire wrote satirical poetry mocking the aristocracy, he spent eleven months in the Bastille.
Like Voltaire, Russian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ridiculed the wrong people on paper—namely Josef Stalin. He was interrogated, beaten, sentenced to eight years in labor camps, and ultimately exiled.
After writing her novella Women Without Men, which challenges gender relations in Iran, Shahrnush Parsipur was imprisoned. She was incarcerated again when she protested the execution of two poet-journalists by the Iranian secret police.
A reporter for the New York Times, James Risen, was subpoenaed by federal prosecutors to reveal the identity of the CIA source for his book State of War. He appealed to the Supreme Court, which refused to intervene. On the witness stand, Risen declined to testify, but he was not held in contempt of court.
Vanessa Leggett spent 168 days in jail, the longest contempt-of-court imprisonment for a journalist. After five years of research, Leggett was writing a book about a true murder-for-hire case in Texas. When a judge demanded she appear in court, she refused to turn over her book notes to the grand jury.
The Help is a novel about black maids who worked for white families in 1960s Mississippi. Author Kathryn Stockett was sued by her brother’s nanny, who said the novel was demeaning and that its main character was based on her. The lawsuit was dismissed.
An author’s ex-boyfriend said she used spyware to steal his emails, parts of which were used in her best-selling novel The Girls. Emma Cline sued the ex-boyfriend in return for damages to her literary reputation.
Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling, Stephen King, et. al.
If you write a best-selling novel, you best be ready to defend it. It seems that successful books are targets for plagiarism and copyright lawsuits. Never fear. These authors are backed by big publishers with powerful legal defense to counter civil suits.