Drew Peterson attorneys to mount 'quick' defense
JOLIET, Ill. – And now it'll be Drew Peterson's turn.
After four weeks of witnesses telling jurors that Peterson wanted ex-wife Kathleen Savio dead, threatened to kill her and was willing to pay someone else $25,000 to do the job, the former suburban Chicago police officer's attorneys will get a chance this week to present his side of the story.
With the Will County prosecution expected to rest Monday, Peterson's attorneys will aim to persuade jurors that the death of Peterson's third wife was nothing more than a tragic accident, despite testimony about his threats and how she was so fearful she slept with a knife under her mattress. Their case may have been aided by repeated prosecution missteps in a trial that has rested almost exclusively on hearsay and circumstantial evidence.
For three years, Peterson's attorneys have insisted Savio slipped in the tub, hit her head and drowned. They have pathologists poised to testify to that, countering other pathologists who told jurors that Savio's 2004 death was a homicide and an autopsy reached the same conclusion -- though only when authorities exhumed her body after the disappearance of Peterson's fourth wife, Stacy Peterson.
"I'm not entirely certain (the prosecution has) shown she was murdered," said Daniel Coyne, a clinical professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law. "The evidence that a murder took place is in question, and if they haven't proved there was a murder, everything else is irrelevant."
Presiding Judge Edward Burmila exposed potential holes in the state's case Friday when he told prosecutors they had failed to either place Peterson in the bathroom where Savio's body was found or to illustrate exactly how he might have killed her.
When prosecutors asked Burmila -- with jurors out of earshot -- if they could enter testimony to suggest Peterson could have used his training as a police officer to put Savio in a stranglehold, he refused to let them.
"You can't be serious," he balked. "You don't even have any evidence linking him to the scene. Now you want to say this is what he did there?"
One defense attorney observing the trial said prosecutors succeeded in making a strong case that Savio did not simply slip in the bathtub. Kathleen Zellner, who has handled cases in Will County, noted "common sense" testimony that points to foul play. For example, she pointed to testimony that Savio was not found wearing a hair clip, as she usually did when she bathed, but wearing a necklace. Investigators also did not find a bath mat near the tub.
"Those kinds of things resonate with women jurors," Zellner said. "Women don't bathe with jewelry."
Zellner said there is "a tsunami of evidence against him on motive, that he wanted her dead." David Erickson, a former state appellate judge who teaches at Chicago-Kent, agreed, noting the testimony of Jeff Patcher, who told jurors that Peterson offered him $25,000 to hire a hit man.
"I think that's devastating, absolutely devastating," he said.
The defense has the option of resting without calling a single witness, arguing that the state fell far short of proving its case. But Peterson lawyer Joe Lopez told reporters Friday their team planned to mount a defense that should last two days. "It'll go smoothly, and it'll go quick," Lopez said.
Their witnesses could include officers who investigated Savio's death, to counter a prosecution argument that the police work was badly bungled. They also must decide whether to call Peterson himself, a risky move given the arrogant and seemingly callous personality he displayed for years before TV cameras.
Some argue that Peterson needs to testify, since he's the only one who can say where he was when Savio died. The only other person who could speak to that is his missing fourth wife, Stacy, whose minister was allowed to testify that Peterson warned her about police questioning her and coached her for hours on how to lie to them.
"They've got to hear from him or Stacy, and we all know Stacy is not going come in and vouch for him," Zellner said.
Erickson disagreed, pointing out that prosecutors would grill Peterson about the threats, possibly allowing them to introduce new evidence. There also would be risk in denying the hearsay evidence and appearing to attack the victim.
"If that man takes the stand, it's over," Erickson said. "He's got to call his dead (ex) wife a liar."
Still, Erickson said, recent media reports that Peterson receives love letters in jail suggest Peterson might be able to charm the jury.
"He does still charm people and maybe he thinks he can be that charming guy" on the witness stand, he said.