Published January 14, 2015
Drew Peterson might not take the stand if he goes to trial on charges alleging he killed his third wife, but his words could still play a big role as prosecutors try to put him away.
The former police officer, facing arraignment Monday on first-degree murder charges in the 2004 drowning death of ex-wife Kathleen Savio, has never shied from the media that has followed his every move since his fourth wife, Stacy, vanished in 2007 and he became a suspect in Savio's death.
In fact, he's seemed to relish the spotlight, often giving reporters a joke or smart-aleck remark — like smiling and calling his handcuffs "bling" when he was led to his first court appearance earlier this month.
And that, attorneys say, could be one of Peterson's biggest problems.
"If one wife goes missing and (another) wife is dead, those aren't usually the subject of jokes," said Roy Black, a defense attorney whose clients have included Rush Limbaugh and William Kennedy Smith. "People are going to think this is a very bizarre person, who's more likely to have committed murder than someone who is in mourning."
Peterson is accused of drowning Savio, who was found dead in a dry bathtub in 2004 with a gash on the back of her head. Her death was initially ruled an accident, but after Stacy Peterson went missing Savio's body was exhumed and authorities ruled her death a homicide staged to look like an accident.
Marilyn Brenneman, a senior deputy prosecutor in Seattle's King County, once won a murder conviction after showing jurors a video of a news conference given by a man charged in a drowning death.
"We used it to show his attitude was blase," she said. "He was kind of wooden and didn't show any emotion. ... That is not really an appropriate response."
Defense attorney Mark Geragos has seen what a defendant's own words can do to a case. One of his most famous clients, Scott Peterson, was convicted of murdering his pregnant wife, Laci, after a trial in which jurors watched three television interviews he gave before he retained Geragos.
The interviews included Peterson saying he told police about his affair with another woman the first night his wife was reported missing and saying he told his mistress the truth about being married within several days of the disappearance. Neither was true. And by the time those clips played in court, jurors knew from other testimony that they were watching Scott Peterson lie.
"Some of the most compelling evidence the jury can see is prejudicial but unfortunately it's compelling," Geragos said.
In San Diego in 2007, Cynthia Sommer was convicted of first-degree murder in the slaying of her husband after prosecutors based much of their case on the idea that she did not behave like a grieving widow.
The jury heard about how Sommer used insurance money to pay for breast implants, took part in wet T-shirt contests and had casual sex with other men.
"This case was all about a grieving unbecoming of a widow," said Sommer's attorney, Allen Bloom. "That's all it was, it was a lifestyle, it was painting her with a scarlet letter."
However, a year later a judge dismissed the charges that Sommer poisoned her husband with arsenic because new tests revealed there was no arsenic in his system.
Even if the videos of Drew Peterson's public comments don't make it into trial, they can still have an effect.
"Whether it's admissible or not is one thing ..." said Joe Tacopina, a prominent New York defense attorney. "But it's certainly admissible in the court of public opinion, which is your jury pool."
Peterson's attorney said joking around is how his client deals with stress.
"In a tight, uncomfortable situation, you're gonna get humor and wise cracks," said attorney Joel Brodsky, who is expected to ask a judge Monday to reduce Peterson's bail, which is set at $20 million.
Peterson said he wouldn't behave any other way.
"Would it be better if I hid my head down and tried to hide my face and hunched and had tears in my eyes?" he asked NBC's Matt Lauer during a telephone interview aired on "Today" on Friday. "I mean, no, that's just not me."
Almost since the day Stacy Peterson vanished in October 2007, Peterson has done things like joke about his fourth wife's menstrual cycles and agree to take part in a radio "Win a Date With Drew" contest. A radio station rejected the contest idea.
Brodsky said he is confident that if Peterson stands trial the jury will do the right thing.
"My experience is that juries usually work very hard to put away biases and look at the facts," he said.
But Bloom said even though most jurors want to do the right thing, they can still end up being swayed by things that have nothing to do with evidence.
"They say they won't, but they can be impacted by innuendo, suspicion, speculation and moral judgment," he said.