Drew Peterson murder trial under way in Illinois
JOLIET, Ill. (AP) – The murder trial of former suburban Chicago police sergeant Drew Peterson began Tuesday with dueling explanations of his third wife’s death, clashes over evidence and a teary witness’ description of finding her friend’s body.
Prosecutors gave jurors an account that could have come from a 1940s pulp novel, in which a man does whatever he must – including murder – to keep his ex-wife’s hands off his money.
On the other side, Peterson’s attorneys argued the former officer was a victim of something newer: a 24-hour news cycle and cable TV’s talking heads, which together created a media frenzy that did not subside until prosecutors had charged an innocent man.
Peterson, 58, is charged with first-degree murder in the 2004 death of his third wife, 40-year-old Kathleen Savio. He is suspected but not charged in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson. He has denied wrongdoing in both cases.
The real-life drama inspired a TV movie and attracted national attention, as many speculated whether Peterson used his law-enforcement expertise to get away with Savio’s murder and make 23-year-old Stacy Peterson vanish.
The prosecution’s witness was Mary Pontarelli, a neighbor who discovered Savio’s body in a dry bathtub, her hair soaked with blood.
“I saw Kathleen in the tub, ran out, threw myself on the ground and started screaming,” she said, her voice cracking.
Pontarelli testified that Peterson then ran up the stairs, took Savio’s pulse and declared somberly, “She is dead.”
“I asked him if we could cover her up,” a tearful Pontarelli recalled saying. She said Peterson responded they couldn’t because investigators would want the body untouched.
Jurors saw their first photos of Savio – one of her smiling with a friend, the other her lifeless body, a trail of blood running down the side toward her feet.
During Tuesday’s proceedings, Peterson appeared relaxed but engaged, jotting notes and occasionally looking at the crowded spectators’ benches.
In a dry, dispassionate tone, Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow told jurors that Peterson told Savio weeks before her death that he would kill her, and that she’d never see a divorce settlement or get his pension.
“The evidence will show that Kathleen Savio was murdered and it was made to look like an accident,” Glasgow said.
In his opening, defense attorney Joel Brodsky told jurors repeatedly there was no evidence that Savio’s death was anything but a tragic accident.
“You will hear nothing but myth, rumor, innuendo and hearsay,” Brodsky said about the prosecution’s case. “You have a man’s life in your hands … deal with facts.”
He also sought to knock down what prosecutors will certainly contend – that the investigation into Savio’s death was a shoddy one. Brodsky said Illinois State Police investigators were very experienced and conducted the investigation because the Bolingbrook Police Department wanted to make sure there were no questions, as Peterson was one of their high-ranking officers.
Brodsky said Savio’s death was an accident because there was no sign of a struggle.
“The bathroom was in perfect order,” he said. “There is not one shred of evidence whatsoever that Drew Peterson or anybody else for that matter was in that house. …”Kathy slipped and fell in a household accident, case closed,” Brodsky said.
Brodsky also suggested that Peterson was the victim of a “media circus” after Stacy Peterson disappeared – he was charged in Savio’s death after his much younger fourth wife vanished.
The media rush to make Peterson out to be a killer was not about the truth, but “entertainment,” Brodsky said, citing a national TV host teasing a pathologist’s inquiry into the case before a commercial break. “If he (the pathologist) confirms it’s an accident, there’s no story.”
Glasgow told the jury what has been widely known for years: There is no physical evidence linking Peterson to Savio’s death. A botched initial investigation will force prosecutors to rely heavily on hearsay evidence – statements not heard directly by witnesses that normally are barred at trials – as well as circumstantial evidence to convince jurors of Peterson’s guilt.
In his opening, Brodsky sought to short-circuit expected testimony that Peterson repeatedly threatened Savio, telling jurors that she had had penchant for exaggeration, had a “hot temper” and made false accusations against Peterson to gain an advantage in divorce proceedings.
It took less than 10 minutes for disputes to erupt over what evidence should be admitted. As Glasgow broached an allegation that Drew Peterson once inquired about paying a hitman to murder Savio, defense attorney Steve Greenberg leapt to his feet to object.
Judge Edward Burmila instructed jurors to leave the room and Greenberg moved for a mistrial. Burmila eventually denied the request, saying Glasgow was just a few words into the allegation before the defense objected.
DON BABWIN and MICHAEL TARM
Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.