Debates are still raging about the Michael Peterson case after Netflix release of the final few episodes of the true crime documentaries series The Staircase, which followed Peterson’s journey through the judicial system from start to finish after the tragic death of his second wife in 2001. But, if you’re as fascinated by the case as many of us, you already know that a lot was left out of the series for the sake of keeping the episodes about the judicial system — most famous of all, the Owl Theory. We’ve already briefed you on the theory, but what did Michael Peterson’s lawyer David Rudolf think of it at the time?
David Rudolf plays a vital role in the documentary because he not only plays the largest role in the courtroom during Michael Peterson’s first trial in 2003 but also because he was clearly emotionally invested in not only the case but also the Peterson family. Other than Peterson himself we also see the most interview time throughout The Staircase with David Rudolf.
If you’ve watched the series, you already know that the jury found Michael Peterson’s guilty of premeditated first degree murder in 2003 and that the Owl Theory didn’t come about until after that decision was already handed down and Michael was behind bars. (If you want to go over the details again, we have a guide to the Owl Theory.) We’ve also told you how much David Rudolf thought that decision was wrong and how much it devastated him emotionally. But what did the man tasked with defending Michael Peterson think of the Owl Theory?
What did David Rudolf think of the Owl Theory?
“[T]he owl theory came out, and it became sort of a joke,” David Rudolf explained to The Huffington Post, adding that he thought “that was unfortunate.” He describes how the theory came out to the public during the time in which Michael Peterson was trying to appeal his case from prison, but was repeatedly denied by the court of appeals.
But David Rudolf knew about the Owl Theory during the first trial. “Sure, I thought those wounds were bizarre-looking and there were some things that didn’t really fit, but the fact that some animal or bird could have done this just never crossed my consciousness,” he explained to HuffPo. “It really wasn’t until about a day or two before closing argument that [lawyer] Larry Pollard came to my office and raised it.” It was the day before closing arguments, too late to introduce a new theory in the lawyer’s opinion. “I couldn’t do anything with it,” he tells Netflix in a special feature about the theory.
“Larry sort of rolled out the theory and I don’t think he really had his ducks in a row at that point in time, so it became a joke,” Rudolf added. “No one honestly took it seriously.” But does David Rudolf believe the Owl Theory?
In the Netflix exclusive short about the Owl Theory, David Rudolf says, “When you look at the wounds on Kathleen’s head, the theory that a raptor caused those wounds is pretty persuasive.” But ultimately, he explains, the theory itself changes very little about the defence’s case. Everything is the same except for how the initial wounds happen.
Ever the lawyer, he’s careful about giving his opinion or speculating on what happened the night of Kathleen’s death. “Whether an owl swooped down that night when she was outside, I don’t know, but it’s certainly plausible,” he says in the video. “But if we had retried it, would that have been something I would have been seriously investigating? Absolutely.”
Watch David Rudolf talk about the Owl Theory