JOLIET, Ill. – A judge dismissed felony gun charges Thursday against Drew Peterson after prosecutors refused to hand over internal documents leading to their decision to arrest the former Bolingbrook police sergeant, who is suspected in the disappearance of his wife.
In a tense hearing, Judge Richard Schoenstedt ruled that prosecutors must comply with his order to give defense attorneys the documents, which are communication between Illinois State Police and the Will County state's attorney's office. Neither attorneys nor Schoenstedt outlined specifically what is in those documents.
Schoenstedt warned prosecutors that if they did not hand over the documents, he could dismiss the charges. Will County prosecutor John Connor refused, telling the judge he understood the consequences but saying such a move would open a "flood gate" for future cases.
"We don't want to subject every prosecutor in the country to have to turn over internal documents," he said.
Peterson and attorney Joel Brodsky said they were pleased.
"I love these guys," Peterson said, hugging his attorneys. "It's a big relief. It's a happy day."
Brodsky said it would have been unfair not to have the documents because the information was a big part of the case.
"We believe the only real reason that the state would not want to have turned over those documents is that they would helped us," he said.
Prosecutors can appeal to a state appellate court, but if they lose they cannot refile charges against Peterson, Brodsky said.
Connor said the office would appeal the decision, the latest setback for prosecutors, who have investigated Peterson for more than a year.
The felony gun charges stemmed from an investigation into the disappearance of Peterson's wife, Stacy. He was charged with owning an assault rifle with a barrel shorter than allowed by state law.
The gun was one of several weapons seized by state police investigators during a search of Peterson's Bolingbrook home after Stacy Peterson vanished on Oct. 28, 2007. Peterson, 54, is a suspect in the disappearance but has not been charged, and he has repeatedly said he thinks his wife ran off with another man.
A legal battle over the weapons ensued, with Brodsky trying to persuade the judge to order authorities to give them back to his client, just as he had successfully won a court order forcing them to return Peterson's vehicles, computers and other belongings.
But in the midst of that battle, Will County prosecutors charged Peterson with unlawful use of a weapon, contending that the assault rifle was illegal under Illinois law because the barrel was too short.
Since the charges were announced, Brodsky has contended that Peterson did not break the law because the weapons that officers use as part of their duties are exempt from the length provision.
Peterson used the weapon as part of his duties on the Bolingbrook Police Department's SWAT unit, Brodsky said.
Brodsky has also accused prosecutors of "vindictive prosecution," saying the charges were filed to punish Peterson because he prevailed in winning court orders that prosecutors had fought, including one that forced authorities to turn weapons over to Peterson's adult son.
Authorities are also investigating the death of Peterson's third wife, Kathleen Savio, whose body was found in an empty bathtub in her house in 2004. After Stacy Peterson disappeared, investigators reopened the investigation of Savio's death.
Following the exhumation of her body and an autopsy, her death was reclassified as a homicide. Peterson has not been named a suspect in her death.