Published July 27, 2011
CHICAGO – The high-profile murder case against former suburban Chicago police officer Drew Peterson, accused of killing his third wife, may never make it to trial, experts say, after a court agreed prosecutors shouldn't be allowed to use certain hearsay statements as evidence.
The ruling by a state appellate court this week upholding a lower court's decision to exclude eight of 14 hearsay -- or second-hand -- statements raises fresh questions about the viability of trying Peterson on charges he killed Kathleen Savio in 2004. Peterson was charged only after his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, disappeared in 2007 and Savio's body was exhumed. Prosecutors have presented no physical evidence or eyewitnesses and have said the hearsay statements were vital.
The former Bolingbrook police sergeant, in jail awaiting trial since 2009, has apparently drawn encouragement from the court decision. Asked Wednesday how his client reacted to the ruling, lawyer Joseph Lopez said, "He's happy."
Any hopes Peterson may harbor of altogether averting a trial in Savio's death may be well founded, some observers say.
"It sounds like a lot of this was at the crux of their case," Chicago attorney Michael Helfand said about the statements excluded by the courts. "If they don't have anything more -- like eye witnesses or good forensics, which they don't -- then how can you not drop this case?"
The legal saga surrounded the burly, mustachioed ex-cop has attracted national attention, even inspiring a TV movie -- now in production -- starring Rob Lowe as Peterson.
Attorneys have declined to offer details about the excluded hearsay statements, citing a gag order.
But a person familiar with the case previously told The Associated Press that the statements excluded by the lower court judge included one from Stacy Peterson's pastor, who said she told him she'd given Peterson a false alibi the weekend of Savio's death. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the judge's orders have been sealed.
That person said the pastor, Neil Schori, will still be allowed to testify about other conversations with Stacy Peterson. For example, Schori can testify Stacy Peterson told him of seeing her husband, dressed all in black, dumping his clothes and women's clothing that did not belong to Stacy into their washing machine the night before Savio's body was found in her bathtub, the source said.
Stacy Peterson is presumed dead by authorities. Drew Peterson has never been charged in her disappearance, but authorities have said he is a suspect.
The person also said the judge ruled one of Savio's co-workers couldn't testify. During a hearing last year on the hearsay testimony, Issam Karam said Savio told him about a night at her home when Peterson, armed with a knife, allegedly grabbed her throat and told her there was nothing she could do to protect herself from him.
While not confirming the substance of the excluded statements, state attorneys have gone so far as to indicate in court filings that they'll be "unable to proceed to trial" if they're stopped from entering the hearsay into evidence.
The defense may make that point in asking a judge for the trial to be canceled, Lopez said.
Messages left for a spokesman for a Will County State's Attorney's Office spokesman on Wednesday were not immediately returned. In a statement earlier this week, the office said it disagrees with the ruling and will review it before making a decision on whether to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court.
The limit on hearsay statements isn't the only obstacle prosecutors would face at trial. Savio's death was originally ruled an accident, and prosecutors would have to persuade a jury to accept a conclusion years later that she was, in fact, murdered.
The ruling this week was particularly frustrating to Savio's family, who had been trying to convince authorities since shortly after Savio's death that she did not simply drown accidentally.
"Depending on what prosecutors have, they might be back to square one, which I hope not," Savio's niece, Melissa Marie Doman of Romeoville, said Tuesday.
Helfand believes that's just where prosecutors are. Freeing Peterson would likely prompt public outcry, he added, "but you have to go by the facts, and these prosecutors don't seem to have the goods.
"You can't just put someone on trial because you think they are a scum bag. If the evidence isn't reliable, you have to let it go."