Crime scene investigation under scrutiny at Drew Peterson’s murder trial

With no splattered blood, no broken furniture to indicate a struggle and what they all took as a sound explanation for why Drew Peterson's third wife lay dead in her bathtub, investigators quickly assumed she'd died after a fall in the bathroom -- not as a result of murder.

That was the testimony Tuesday as prosecutors sought to explain to jurors that there is no physical evidence linking the former suburban cop to the murder of Kathleen Savio because the initial investigation was badly botched.

An investigator and a deputy coroner testified that nearly everyone involved initially assumed Savio's death was an accident. In fact, Peterson was only charged after his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, went missing three years later. Savio's body was exhumed then and her 2004 death reclassified from an accident to a homicide. Peterson, 58, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder.

Deputy Coroner Michael VanOver testified that investigators concluded Savio's death was an accident while her corpse was still sprawled in the dry bathtub -- her hair soaked with blood. As he examined her body and turned to inquire whether he should take special measures to preserve potential evidence, other officials indicated there was no need.

"I asked ... if they thought there was something wrong here, and they stated, `No,"' VanOver recalled.

Dressed in a pin-stripe suit, Peterson rested his hand on his cheek as he followed the testimony in the Joliet courtroom. When a photograph of Savio's body was displayed, he showed no visible emotion.

Another witness, crime-scene investigator Robert Deel, told jurors he saw no signs of a struggle at Savio's home. At other murder scenes, he has seen doors broken off their hinges, holes punched into walls and blood everywhere.

"When someone is fighting for their lives, it's an intense thing," he added dramatically.

Under questioning by prosecutors, Deel conceded he did only a cursory search inside and outside Savio's home, and that he didn't even bother going into some rooms. Asked about a half-full glass of orange juice in the kitchen, he said it was never tested for fingerprints, blood or anything else.

Deel appeared cowed at times as prosecutors pressed him to admit the investigation should have been more thorough. But by the end of the day, he more often appeared defiant and confident, defending his work at the scene.

"Is it still your opinion that Kathleen Savio died in an accident, is that correct?" defense attorney Joel Brodsky asked during cross-examination.

"Yes," Deel said firmly.

Typically, it is prosecutors who herald the work of investigators at murder trials. But the Peterson prosecutors are working to show the investigation was shoddy and setting the stage for the admission of circumstantial evidence and normally prohibited hearsay.

Peterson's attorneys have defended the investigation as perfectly adequate, suggesting the reason there is no physical evidence is because there was no crime.

VanOver testified that a lack of soap scum along the inside of the bathtub was among the things that made him suspicious. He also said the position of the body in the tub didn't suggest Savio had fallen and bottles lined along the tub had not toppled over, which he said he would have been expected if someone had taken a fatal fall.

But he admitted under cross-examination that he didn't express his concerns to investigators or other authorities.

"You didn't tell anyone you thought it was a homicide, right?" defense attorney Darryl Goldberg pressed him.

"No, I did not," VanOver said flatly.

Out of earshot of jurors, defense attorney Steve Greenberg complained prosecutors were trying to send a message to jurors that, if only investigators had done a better job, they would surely have found evidence proving his client committed murder.

"But their (investigators') failure to find something doesn't lead to the conclusion ... that Mr. Peterson committed a crime," Greenberg said.

Judge Edward Burmila declined to bar prosecutors from dwelling on the shoddy investigation, but he said he wouldn't let them suggest to jurors that there must have been evidence there that wasn't collected but would have proven Peterson's guilt.