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  • 88 – Attorney & Reporter From Infamous Staircase Murder Mystery Share Stories From the Case

88 – Attorney & Reporter From Infamous Staircase Murder Mystery Share Stories From the Case

88 – Attorney & Reporter From Infamous Staircase Murder Mystery Share Stories From the Case

David Rudolf and Sonya Pfeiffer are spouses, attorneys at Rudolf Widenhouse law firm, and co-hosts of the popular podcast Abuse of Power. However, they may both be best known for their work on North Carolina vs. Peterson, a bizarre, 15-year-long case that was documented on the Netflix smash-hit, The Staircase. In this don’t-miss episode of Open Mike, Rudolf and Pfeiffer reflect on subjects omitted by the docuseries, including: the challenges of working on a highly publicized case with a documentary crew, what they retrospectively would have done differently to ensure justice, and how their client, Michael Peterson, is faring five years after the case’s conclusion.

Show Notes

[00:50] David Rudolf and Sonya Pfeiffer, thank you both for being here with us on Open Mike! I have so many questions for you, I’ve been reading about your history, and so many exciting things you’ve been a part of — things we’ve been trying to cover on Open Mike with all the wrongful exonerations…

[01:07] David, let’s dive right in. You’ve been an attorney for many years and have always fought for the little guy. What has driven you to those cases?

[02:32] Sonya, I recognize you from the Netflix series Abuse of Power. You had a prominent role as a reporter in the series — now you’re a lawyer, you guys are married, and you have this great podcast… tell us about that journey and where you are now.

[05:19] What a journey! After law school you met David during the Peterson trial, is that true?

[05:49] Did you guys start dating after the Peterson trial, during the Peterson trial, am I allowed to ask that question?

[07:46] I assume with some of your current cases, you’re dealing with the press. How are you finding that? Are you good at that, or is it difficult?

[10:21] Before we hop into the Peterson case, Netflix, and your podcast, I have a question about consistent problems you’ve seen in the many, many years you’ve been doing criminal defense… on our podcast, we’ve now interview five exonerees who have collectively sent over 100 years in prison for crimes they absolutely did not commit… As a lawyer of thirty years who’s new to criminal defense, I’m seeing consistent inequity in our justice system, and I’m curious what you’re seeing on a day-to-day basis and whether you think we’re getting better?

[12:07] The root cause of such inequity may be confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out information that reinforces previously established beliefs. In a legal context where evidence may be weak, this can manifest in pressuring false confessions out of suspects, junk science, or tampered evidence.

[14:57] If you’ve not checked out the Netflix series The Staircase, about the Peterson trial, you need to check it out.

[15:25] How did you get involved in the case? Did you know someone involved, or were you one of the best resources around and were recruited?

[17:48] How did the Netflix series come about and how did the production crew convince you to give them behind-the-scenes access? Because if any of that information came to light while the case was active, the case would have died!

[22:39] Nothing was staged for the film, right? You would have proceeded the way you would have whether or not the film crews were there?

[24:00] Sonya, how fascinating was that for you to watch after the trial, seeing how they came up with their legal theories and conducted investigations?

[25:49] Thank you for putting that in context — the original Netflix series The Staircase came out in 2004 on the Sundance Channel, and then five additional episodes were released by Netflix in 2018.

[26:26] Overall, were you please with how the series came out?

[27:46] The team you put together… you definitely don’t put a team like that together for every case. On the big ones you do. This was a Dream Team. You had some really good defense attorneys, friends and family, jury consultants, pathologists… For example, you flew one in from Detroit — Werner Spitz, the former Oakland County medical examiner who’s world-renowned. A legend. How did you find him?

[30:12] Your facial expressions in some of those first episodes are so compelling. You can almost see into your brain when you’re describing your theories to your jury consultants… I don’t think people realize how much is involved in making those tough decisions. And you don’t know if you made the right decision until the jury comes in and delivers their verdict!

[32:54] The five exonerees I’ve interviewed, none of their defense attorneys had the qualities you described. Nor did they have any assembled teams defending them.

[36:28] How do you instill the passion you’re describing in these attorneys so they become the most effective public defenders possible?

[39:31] The Staircase is so well done, and so thorough. It should be mandatory viewing for law students. Maybe it will be one day.

[40:14] For the fans who have seen this docuseries and may go back and re-watch…  are there one or two things on the case you would have done differently?

[42:35] When you have people who are perjuring themselves and confirmation bias, it’s hard to prove your theories, especially when you’re in the throes of it! It took you eight or nine years to thoroughly assert Michael Peterson’s innocence. But when you’re in it, and you have an uneducated, poor person up against a powerful attorney, it’s hard to prove your point.

[44:44] When people make up evidence or perjure themselves, it’s called noble cause corruption. The reason they’re doing something wrong is that they believe they have the right person — the ends justify the means.

[45:31] Did you interview the jury after the verdict?

[46:37] The second trial you were granted never went… you sent many months working for your client and got him an Alford plea, which we don’t have in Michigan. Can you explain what that is?

[48:49] Was it hard to convince Michael to take that plea?

[49:50] How’s he doing with his children and the family unit he had? Are you still in contact with him?

[51:03] Whether you think Michael is guilty or not, that’s not the point of the docuseries. The point is to show the criminal justice system, illuminate the issues in it, and to demonstrate that he didn’t get a fair trial.

[51:46] What do you really believe happened? It may not be a fair question… it’s such a convoluted, crazy story.

[55:19] David, you literally learned about the owl theory after closing arguments?

[57:12] All these years later, we’re allowed to play Monday morning quarterback… if you were allowed to do the trial again, that would be your theory?

[57:45] Did they check for evidence of an owl attack on her head?

[58:16] Were the feathers in her hair ever analyzed to determine they were owl feathers? Are they in an evidence locker somewhere?

[59:03] Tell me if I’m, wrong, but there wasn’t a single piece of evidence proving an intruder, there’s never been a weapon, there are bizarre marks on her head that don’t seem to be caused by a person, Michael isn’t covered in any evidence or DNA… it was almost like a phantom committed the murder! Those marks on her head may have been hard to reckon with.

[1:00:50] David, tell us about your podcast Abuse of Power!

[1:06:22] Thank you for being on the podcast, I’d love to do more episodes with you. If you have availability in the coming months, I’m going to give you a call!

[1:06:50] Make sure to check out Abuse of Power and The Staircase on Netflix, everyone! David, thank you for your time

[1:07:08] Thank you for watching Open Mike, I hope you enjoyed this episode! Some of the questions I asked today I’m sure they did not ask when the trial was live — if you think I missed any questions, let me know because it sounds like we’re going to have David back on. Like, comment, subscribe, download. We’re looking forward to a great 2021 season and we have lots of great things lined up for you! Thank you for watching, thank you for listening!

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