David Rudolf remembers being in a small airport in the southern African country of Zambia the first time he was recognized as the bearded, bespectacled defense lawyer in a documentary — “Soupçons,” a series that first aired on French television back in 2004.
“But here (in the U.S.),” he says, “there weren’t that many people who had seen it, because it was on Sundance Channel, which nobody knew about.”
Fourteen years later, the series, which chronicles the murder trial of Durham novelist Michael Peterson and the long, twisty saga that unfolded following the original verdict, has been retitled, from the French word for “suspicions” to “The Staircase.” Originally eight episodes, then expanded to 10 in 2013, it became a binge-worthy obsession after adding three more chapters and debuting on Netflix in June.
Needless to say, Rudolf — now 69 and goateed instead of fully bearded, still practicing law out of his offices in Charlotte’s South End — is getting recognized in a lot more places that are a lot closer to home.
“My 8-year-old daughter gets embarrassed because her lunch person is taking her money for her lunch and looks at her little card and says, ‘What’s your dad’s name?’ (So she tells her) and the lunch lady says, ‘I just finished watching “The Staircase.” It was great!’ ... It’s not like the Beatles arriving in the United States. I don’t have screaming teenagers outside my car. But people will come up to me and say, ‘Excuse me, I just have a question.’ I immediately say, ‘The answer is yes.’ “ He laughs.
And since Netflix first exposed “The Staircase” to millions, Rudolf has become something of a hot ticket — literally. In the coming months, he’ll hit the road dozens of times to give talks at sold-out theaters in places as far away as the United Kingdom and California, and as near as Asheville and Durham.
On Thursday, Oct. 4, he’ll join “The Staircase” producer Allyson Luchak and former Raleigh television journalist Sonya Pfeiffer — who covered the Peterson trial and is now Rudolf’s wife as well as a partner at his law firm — for a panel discussion at Charlotte’s McGlohon Theater titled “Inside the Staircase: Lies, Fake Science, and the Owl Theory.”
We recently had a conversation with Rudolf in his firm’s conference room — adorned with a large illustration of Rudolf defending another high-profile client, Rae Carruth — that should hook any aficionado of “The Staircase.” (The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)
Q. So tell me when you first heard about the idea for a TV show.
Well, this French film crew had won an Academy Award for “Murder on a Sunday Morning,” and they were looking for another case to do. So they called Court TV looking for names of lawyers who might know about cases, figuring Court TV keeps track of what’s going on. And Court TV gave them my name, because I had just finished the Carruth case, which Court TV had covered. Not because they knew I had any particular case, but just, “Call him, he may know somebody.” And as it turned out, I had just picked up the Peterson case a month or so before that. I said, “Well, I’ve got this murder case. I don’t know if it’s gonna be interesting enough, but I’m happy to talk with you.” They came up, and that’s how it all got started.
Q. Were you reluctant at all?
Oh yeah. (Laughing.) Yeah, very reluctant. But there were a couple of things they had going for them. Number one was they had won an Academy Award, so you knew they were quality documentarians. Number two, my client was very concerned about being treated unfairly by the powers that be in Durham, because of all the criticism that he had leveled at the police and the prosecutors and the City Council over the years as a newspaper columnist. He thought that having an Academy Award-winning foreign film crew there in Durham filming the thing would keep people more honest — you know, would level the playing field. So he was willing to do it. But I was very reluctant to do it because of obvious attorney-client privilege issues.
Q. What swayed you?
They agreed that they would be filming for me, for my purposes, until after the trial, so that in essence they’d be covered by my attorney-client privilege — at least in theory. So, anything I said in their presence, if they’re filming it for me, is covered by the privilege. That was one layer. A second layer was that they would send the daily (footage) back to France every night so that if the prosecution subpoenaed it, it wouldn’t be here in the United States — they’d have to somehow get it from France. Then the third piece of it was that none of it would be shown publicly until after the trial and appeals were all exhausted.
Q. And what were the ground rules when the crew was with you?
That was it. Now, they weren’t living with us. They weren’t there 24-7. If I knew that something important was gonna happen — a hearing of some sort, or like when all the experts came to inspect the house — the idea was to let them know, “Hey, we’re gonna be having a meeting of the experts, if you want to film that.” But there were no other ground rules, and they were very respectful. Other than the fact that there was a camera in the room and a boom mic, I never felt like they interfered with anything I did. It wasn’t as though they interrupted and said, “Oh, wait, can you do that again? We didn’t quite get that.” ... And they had told me that in the end, if I had some real concern about a piece of the film, they would consider my view in terms of whether they would keep that in. I watched the (original) eight parts before they came out, and there was really nothing in there that I thought would be detrimental to a retrial.
Q. Did you agree at the time with Michael’s feeling that he was going to be treated unfairly by the powers that be in Durham?
No, I didn’t. I thought he was being paranoid. Little did I know. (Laughing.) I mean, I had known Judge (Orlando) Hudson for a long time. He had taught with me at UNC Law School when I was teaching trial advocacy. I had a very good relationship with him — probably as good a relationship with him as a judge as with anybody in the state. I couldn’t imagine him not being fair. And it was Durham. I mean, it wasn’t like I was in bumf--- North Carolina. So no, I thought he was being paranoid. As it turned out, he was right.
Q. Going back to the ground-rules issue, did you ask them not to follow you into your personal life, or was that just not where they wanted to go with it?
There wasn’t anything that was off-limits, but they weren’t really focused on me. My personal life really wasn’t relevant. It wasn’t something that they even asked about.
Q. I’m curious for a couple reasons. One is because, well, you ended up marrying one of the reporters who was covering the case. (Editor’s note: Rudolf and Pfeiffer were married 11 years ago, long before the final five episodes were filmed.) I guess it just doesn’t make sense in the narrative to include that, though.
No, I don’t think so. I mean, we got to know each other in an interesting way. ... But I don’t think it’s terribly strange for two people, in that circumstance, to form a bond of some sort. And I was close with all the reporters. I mean, Demorris Lee was the News & Observer reporter, he and I became friendly. Julia Lewis was a reporter for WRAL, she and I were friendly. It’s just sort of a symbiotic relationship. The reporters want access to you, to get a fuller picture of what’s going on, and at the same time, you want to have good relations with the reporters because you want to make sure that your side of the story gets told. That it doesn’t get lost. So, in every trial, there’s that give and take.
Q. The other thing is, it might have been interesting to see them explore your personal life because you were clearly under an enormous amount of stress and I wondered how that was affecting the rest of your life. I mean, the case totally consumed you, right?
Oh, no doubt about it. ... I mean, you’re living in a bubble, basically, when you’re on trial, and this trial went on for five months. The run-up to it was equally stressful with all the developments — you know, the body (of family friend Elizabeth Ratliff) being taken out of the grave and all that stuff. So yeah, it was all-consuming, no doubt about it. But I think their focus was almost entirely on the case. And I don’t think they were interested in the personal lives of anyone, really. Even the kids. I mean, you never really saw much about (Peterson’s son) Clayton’s personal life other than when he came to visit Michael, for example.
Q. What kind of emotional toll did it have on you?
Well, the verdict was really the killer for me. When you’re in a trial like that, there’s stress, but there’s also adrenaline pumping. It’s like you’re in a championship game. And so you don’t feel the pain. You know, you’re injured, but you don’t feel it. I think it’s sort of the way it is with a trial. You may be emotionally injured, you may be under major stress, but mostly you’re just feeling this adrenaline. The real emotional impact came after the verdict, and then it was really a deep depression for me. It was a really tough time in my life, on a personal level, dealing with that.
Q. Was it immediate, or did it take awhile?
Oh, immediate. And that’s true to a certain extent whenever you try a case, win or lose. The adrenaline goes down and you get into a little bit of a funk. Even when you win, you’re elated when the verdict comes in, and the next day, everything drains out. But this was much worse, because I never, ever, ever expected a guilty verdict. And I believe — and still believe — that Michael is innocent. And as I said in the documentary, it really caused me to second-guess myself in terms of, “Did I really read what was going on in the courtroom correctly? Was I missing something?” There was nothing that I second-guessed myself on in terms of the actual choices I made during the trial, but I second-guessed my ability to comprehend what was happening in the courtroom. To read the courtroom. To understand how things were affecting the jury. I really questioned that. And I’m not sure you ever get that back. I mean, I’ve won trials since then, but it just makes you wonder, “How did I miss it so badly in that one?”
Q. What do you think you were misreading?
I think I was misreading the impact of the Germany and the gay stuff. I knew the blood spatter was bad, but I thought I had neutralized him (blood spatter analyst Duane Deaver) pretty well through cross-examination. And I really didn’t think, with his experiments and all that stuff, that a jury was gonna convict him based on that. I think I underestimated the emotional impact that the Germany stuff and the gay stuff had on the jury. I couldn’t put myself in their place. I’m a different person. It impacted me, but I was able to get past it, and recognize that it wasn’t relevant. And I think my ability to do that masked for me the inability of your normal Durham juror — particularly a juror who might be religious, who might be going to church frequently — to do that. I don’t think I was in touch with how that juror might react to that evidence.
Q. But is there anything you could have done differently given that specific jury?
Not with that jury. I mean, maybe I should have tried to pick a different jury. I remember that we excused some very highly educated people who worked at UNC or Duke but who seemed pretty conservative in other ways, and who had formed some opinions about Peterson through the news or whatever. In retrospect, we might have been better off having those people, because I think the logic of the case would have appealed to them in ways that, with the jurors who sat, it just didn’t.
Q. Given how tough the verdict was for you to take, and how much second-guessing of yourself you did, how did you take hearing Judge Hudson say what he says in his interview with the film crew in the final episode?
I was ambivalent about it. On the one hand, I thought it was really courageous and unusual for a judge to admit on camera that perhaps he had made a mistake in a case of this magnitude, where somebody had spent eight years in prison. And to admit that he thought on a retrial Michael would have been found not guilty. That he had a reasonable doubt, in essence. I thought that was really courageous on his part, and I appreciated that. The other part of me felt like, “Judge, I told you this 15 years ago! (Laughing.) Why didn’t you listen??” Because we wouldn’t all be here right now.
Q. It’s probably been really interesting this time around to see all of the reaction to the series, now that it’s been exposed to a wider audience — and particularly because of the way social media has changed how conversations are had about television shows since its previous airings.
Absolutely. ... I don’t read Reddit. I’ve never been on Reddit. I don’t really understand Reddit. What I know about Reddit is that there’s a lot of conspiracy theories on there. People go down these deep rabbit holes, and I don’t have the time or the interest to do that. But I’ve been on Facebook, and Twitter, and LinkedIn. And it could have gone the other way — I mean, who knew? — but the comments I get are really, really affirming. It’s been great for me personally, just in terms of making me feel like people recognize the work I did. And recognize that I acted in an ethical way, and recognize that I was prepared and professional, and no matter what happened I maintained my composure. Except while I was preparing for the opening statement. (Laughing.)
Q. The PowerPoint.
Yeah, exactly. Which people actually think is very funny. In retrospect, I can see the humor in it. At the time, I didn’t.
Q. The IT guy probably didn’t either.
Probably not, probably not. But anyway, seeing all the positive comments has been great. And the other thing that’s been great is the comments I’ve gotten about criminal defense lawyers, and that what I did in this case changed people’s views about what criminal defense lawyers do, and how they do it, and why they do it. I think a lot of people had these stereotypes from “Law & Order,” or whatever. That these criminal defense lawyers are just sort of lowlifes, drunks, unscrupulous, shoot-from-the-hip, do-whatever-it-takes-to-win-no-matter-the-ethics. That’s the way we’ve been portrayed in recent years in the popular media. And so it’s really nice to have people say, “Wow, you showed me a whole different side of what criminal defense lawyers do. I have a whole new respect not just for you, but for what you do. For the whole profession.” And that’s really rewarding.
Q. Not that you would have been unscrupulous if the cameras weren’t there, but do you think that in a way, having such a high-profile case and having those cameras there helped you elevate your game?
That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer to that. I think it may have helped me keep my composure. For example, when Judge Hudson would not force the prosecution to tell me whether they intended to get into the Germany stuff or not, leaving me at sea about what was gonna happen in the trial. That was a completely unfair position to put me in. And I watch my reaction to that in the documentary, and I’m almost a little surprised that I don’t react more strongly. That I don’t throw my paper down, or make a face, or something. ... I just gathered up my papers. So maybe in that sense, having the film crew there helped me keep my dignity. (Laughing.) Maybe that helped me keep my game face a little bit in those situations where I needed a game face. ... But I don’t think it affected, in any way, the substance of what I was doing, or how I was doing it, or how I was talking to Michael, or how I was talking to the experts.
Q. Alright, so tell me about this event you’re doing at McGlohon here on October 4.
It’s basically a panel discussion; we’ll answer questions that people have about the making of the documentary. How it got made, what went into it, how the crew got all that access. I mean, they had amazing access even inside the jail. Then of course we’ll get into all the questions that people have about Germany, and about the blow poke, and about the owl. And what we’re hoping to do is to not just answer questions about the facts in the case, but broaden the discussion a little bit about what it says about the criminal justice system, and about lawyers’ roles in the criminal justice system, how changes can be made in the criminal justice system to address some of the issues that you see in “The Staircase,” and some of these other true-crime documentaries that have come out in recent years. Like “Making a Murderer,” or “Serial.” ... And we’ll have the producer there, so that broadens the discussion beyond the case, into the process, and the documentary as a film form. What role can documentaries play in our modern society where truth is under attack, where somebody can say that something didn’t happen even if it did, and make everybody unsure about what truth is. ... Then, of course, Sonya is a great moderator, but she also covered the case. So she can provide that reporter’s perspective, which people haven’t heard before.
Q. When you do these events, or you run into fans on the street, or you get emails — what’s the most common question people ask? And I’m guessing that it’s —
It’s the owl.
Q. I was going to guess: “Do you really think he’s innocent?”
Well, yeah, I think it’s both.
Q. And how do you answer fans when they ask that?
I’m straightforward. I just tell them “I do. I always have.” From the time I met him, through my investigation, through the trial, I have always believed he’s innocent. That’s never changed. So that’s an easy one for me. And I recognize that people can have differences of opinion. The interesting thing is that even people who say “I think he’s guilty,” they usually follow that up with, “But I wouldn’t have voted guilty in this case, because I thought there were reasonable doubts.” In terms of the owl theory, that’s more complicated to explain.
Q. I saw you put a good explanation of it on your website.
Exactly. And I’m sure that question will come up in Charlotte, so you can tell people that if they want to know about the owl theory, come to the show, and I’ll be happy to address it. (Laughing.)
Q. Finally: This current 13-episode iteration of “The Staircase” — does it have a satisfying ending for you?
Yeah. I mean, from an ego standpoint, would it have been nice to get a not guilty? Sure. But in terms of what was right for my client, it was the right result, and I’m at peace with it. I think most people understand why he took the Alford plea. I certainly understood it. And I think it was the right decision.