In his first year teaching at Endicott, Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Ethan Boldt created a course to examine the U.S. court system in a highly unconventional way.
The syllabus for CJ 205: American Court System requires students to subscribe to Netflix for the semester and binge-watch all 13 episodes of The Staircase. (Popcorn is recommended, but not required.)
The documentary and Boldt’s course both follow the Michael Peterson case, which tested the limits of the North Carolina court system and became a twisted national obsession.
“The court system is a complex, hierarchical system of institutions. At Endicott, we’re educating future practitioners in the criminal justice field and this class—a requirement for the major—is often their first encounter with the court system,” Boldt explained.
He said that while topics like policing, the correctional system, and forensic psychology are a big draw for students, the court system, which requires mastering dense terminology to understand, is often an afterthought.
So Boldt set out to make the content come alive.
The Peterson case opened when a call to 911 flashed red on the Emergency Services switchboard at 2:40 a.m. on December 9, 2001. The caller, Michael Peterson, was frantic on the line.
Begging the dispatcher to send someone right away, he sobbed, “My wife had an accident. She’s still breathing!”
When the ambulance arrived minutes later, Peterson was standing at the foot of his mansion’s sweeping stairwell over the crumpled body of his 48-year-old wife, Kathleen Peterson. By then, she had no pulse, and blood was everywhere. Michael claimed to have been unwinding by the mansion’s swimming pool, far out of earshot, until entering the home to go to bed and encountering Kathleen.
A second marriage for Michael, the glamorous, power couple of Durham, N.C., was the toast of high society. He was a successful novelist and Kathleen, an executive, had been the first female student accepted to study engineering at Duke University. In smiling portraits, their blended family was a modern-day Brady Bunch.
But in a plot twist, Michael was soon fighting for his own life on trial for a first-degree murder charge, as the state of North Carolina pinned Kathleen’s death on him.
But no one could ever prove exactly how Kathleen had died.
During the trial, it became clear that the Petersons were not the picture-perfect couple they’d seemed. Michael, who identified as bisexual, and allegedly pursued affairs beyond his wife’s knowledge, was on the verge of financial ruin and had a dark past involving the death of another woman.
Although Peterson was convicted of Kathleen’s death in 2003, the case was granted a new trial when a judge ruled that a witness, state crime lab analyst Duane Deaver, had offered misleading testimony. What’s more, Boldt explained that the judge who presided over the Peterson trial said in an interview that he believed the introduction of evidence related to Michael’s bisexuality and the death of a family friend in Germany was ultimately prejudicial. Many spectators have criticized the prosecution for a perceived reliance on homophobia in making its case to the jury. Peterson ultimately entered an Alford Plea in 2017, walking free.
Long capturing the public’s imagination, the case has been the subject of multiple shows, including Dateline, a 2022 Max miniseries, and the 2004 docuseries The Staircase, directed by Oscar-winning documentarian Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. Three additional episodes were added in 2013 and Netflix made the entire series available for streaming in 2018. The show’s trailer poses an impossible question: “Accident or murder?”
Inside a class that’s based on a true story
Now, criminal justice majors at Endicott are reopening the case in the classroom and trying to crack it.
Each week, students watch a new episode and then attend a session focusing on a different aspect of the American judicial system.
For example, when Peterson goes through trial preparations in Episode 5, Boldt talked with students about the pre-trial process, including how privilege and the ability to afford top attorneys affected every aspect of the case. They also listened to a podcast episode of NPR’s This American Life bluntly titled, “If you cannot afford an attorney some random dude will be appointed to you.”
Over the semester, students investigate the court system from the inside out, ultimately completing a practical assignment requiring them to spend time observing a court in session in Massachusetts and writing a paper in response.
Boldt knew the docuseries would be perfect for a course about the court system because the vast majority of the action takes place in courtrooms, and it was all documented thanks to coverage from Court TV.
“The Staircase is the granddaddy of true crime documentaries,” he said. “When I originally watched it, I was 20 years old.”
Boldt rented it from a local video store—he admits those are relics nowadays—while he was a college student himself at Illinois State University and watched all the DVDs in one go.
His preoccupation with the Peterson case also felt personal because it tied in with his childhood dream.
“As many of my students are, I was also interested from a young age in policing and becoming a police officer. I was fascinated by the idea of law enforcement and upholding justice to keep my community safe,” he explained.
But once he got to college, he realized that he was more passionate about engaging with the justice system as an academic. His Ph.D. in political science from the University of Georgia was a deep dive into the court system, case by case.
Countless other labyrinthine cases could make for solid studies for the class—like the current trial of Canton, Mass., resident Karen Read, who the state has charged with the 2022 death of her boyfriend, Boston police officer John O’Keefe. But Boldt chose this case for a reason: “For most crimes, the solution is fairly obvious. Not with this one. Michael Peterson is the focus of the documentary, and it is captivating to watch someone on trial for murder.”
Boldt said he has his own strong opinion but won’t go on the record to share it.
“The justice system clearly thinks Peterson is guilty, but as the viewer, you’re evaluating his behavior and wondering: did he do it?”
He did point to the bombshell discovery mid-season of the 1985 death of Elizabeth Ratliff in Germany, a friend of Peterson’s with a remarkable physical resemblance to Kathleen Peterson. Michael was the last person to see her alive and the coroner ruled Ratliff’s fall down a staircase the result of an intracerebral hemorrhage. Afterward, Peterson adopted her two young daughters.
“This case is so popular because it’s a puzzle on multiple levels. What really happened to Kathleen Peterson at 1810 Cedar Street that night? What happened to Elizabeth Ratliff in Germany before that?” Boldt wondered.
Only Michael truly knows if Kathleen died in an accident or if he bludgeoned her to death with a fireplace poker or some other weapon. A neighbor’s bizarre theory about an owl attack has never been officially ruled out either.
Caitlin Padeck ’26 is still trying to wrap her head around the case—and she’s in her element.
Padeck knew from a young age that she wanted to pursue a future career in criminal justice. After all, it was the family business. “When I was a kid, both of my parents worked in a jail,” she said. “My mom was a case manager, and my dad was a correctional officer. I grew up watching crime-solving shows with my parents.”
Padeck was thrilled to have an excuse to dive back into her favorite subgenre—crime documentaries—in an academic context that offered deep insight into the American court system. “Watching a docuseries is simple, but understanding what is going on in a very complicated case like this can be hard,” she said.
Her biggest takeaway was picking up an invaluable introduction to the court system, one that came alive with the practical assignment to visit a courtroom. “Before this class, I had no interest in pursuing a career within the courts, but now I have a new perspective and am considering an internship within the court system,” she admitted.
She’s also planning to apply to Endicott’s Fifth Year Program in Homeland Security Studies to pursue an M.S. degree before entering the field.
Padeck’s peer, Nick Soper ’26, was summoned to jury duty while taking the class. Boldt encouraged him to use the experience towards the practical assignment. Coincidentally, they were studying jury selection at that point in the semester.
“Professor Boldt spoke in detail about the Derek Chauvin trial [for the murder of George Floyd] and showed us clips of his lawyers interviewing and questioning the potential jurors to see if they have biases that would be prejudicial,” said Soper. “The way that we learned about these cases in real life was even more effective than a textbook for me.”
When Soper was ultimately selected for the jury, he was eager to put what he’d learned in class into practice in the courtroom. An aspiring detective, he reflected, “In my career, I’m sure I will find my way into a courtroom. I could collect evidence and then be asked to testify. It’s important for me to know how the process and procedures work.”
When it comes to the Peterson case, Soper initially thought Peterson was not guilty. Soon, the question was less about whether the allegedly doting husband murdered Kathleen and more about whether somebody could prove his guilt in a courtroom.
Former state crime lab analyst Deaver originally testified misleadingly about how the blood spatter on the stairwell was consistent with that of a victim who had been beaten to death. However, when it turned out that Deaver had inflated his qualifications, his evaluation was called into question. Peterson was then released from prison to house arrest. The door to a second trial was thrown wide open.
Soper saw this aspect of the case as a point-by-point lesson on how to become a meticulous and ethical detective in the field. “Deaver wasn’t reliable at all, and as a result, based on the evidence we reviewed, I would have to say Peterson is not guilty,” Soper said.
He then shrugged his shoulders and shook his head. “However, whether or not he did it is another question.”