Joliet, Ill. • As they began deliberations Wednesday, jurors in Drew Peterson’s trial immediately zeroed in on the case’s trickiest issue: whether to believe secondhand hearsay statements that would often be barred from consideration in a criminal court.
Because of a botched initial investigation, detectives collected no fingerprints, strands of hair or any other physical evidence in the death of Peterson’s third wife. So Illinois legislators passed a law aimed specifically at the former suburban Chicago police officer. That allowed prosecutors to pursue a conviction based substantially on statements Peterson’s ex-wives made to friends and acquaintances.
After less than two hours of deliberations, jurors sent a flurry of notes to the judge asking for transcripts relating to hearsay that implicated Peterson. Forty-year-old Kathleen Savio was found dead in her bathtub in 2004, her hair soaked in blood and a gash on the back of her head.
Hearsay is any information reported by a witness that is not based on the witness’ direct knowledge.
During five weeks of testimony, witnesses described statements Savio allegedly made about threats from her estranged husband and statements Peterson’s fourth wife, 23-year-old Stacy Peterson, made before she disappeared in 2007.
Some defense attorneys worry that the trial — the first in Illinois history to rely so heavily on hearsay — could fundamentally alter how prosecutors and defense attorneys handle murder cases in this state and around the country.
“The legal issues here are extraordinary,” said Phil Turner, a Chicago defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. “If this sets a precedent, more people will get convicted because someone testifies that someone told them something.”
Heading into the trial, prosecutors described the hearsay evidence as offering Savio and Stacy Peterson the opportunity to speak to jurors “from their graves.”
But the challenge for the jury is deciding if those words — recounted secondhand in court — are believable.
In closing arguments, the prosecution said the fact that more than a half-dozen witnesses cited conversations with Savio and Stacy Peterson that implicated Drew Peterson made those statements all the more believable.
But defense attorney Joe Lopez said the women’s comments were no more credible than water-cooler gossip.
“How many times are you at work and you hear someone say something about someone. They’re lying!” he told the jury.
The defense has also lashed out at Savio and Stacy Peterson’s own credibility.
Lead defense attorney Joel Brodsky told jurors at the start of the trial that Savio was “bonkers” and prone to wild exaggeration — especially in the thick of her acrimonious divorce from Peterson in the years before she died.
One of the notes sent to the judge asked for transcripts of testimony from Stacy Peterson’s pastor, Neal Schori, who presented some of the trial’s most dramatic hearsay.
Stacy Peterson cried in a meeting with Schori not long before she vanished, he testified. She told Schori that Peterson got up from bed in the middle of the night and left the house around the time of Savio’s death. At dawn, she saw him putting woman’s clothes into a washing machine that weren’t hers, Schori said.
“She was very scared,” Schori told jurors.
Jurors also asked for transcripts of attorney Harry Smith, who testified that Stacy Peterson called him three days before her disappearance seeking advice on divorcing Peterson, who was 30 years her senior.
Smith was called by the defense in a bid to dent Stacy Peterson’s credibility. He told jurors she asked about whether she could extort her husband by threatening to tell police he killed Savio.
But Smith’s testimony seemed to backfire on the defense as he repeatedly stressed to jurors that Stacy Peterson sincerely believed Drew Peterson had killed Savio.
Kathleen Zellner, a defense attorney who observed some of the testimony, predicted that jurors would accept the hearsay as credible because the judge deemed it admissible.
“They won’t agonize over it,” she said. “I think they will just accept it on face value. They’ll think, ‘The judge wouldn’t let it come in if it was mere water-cooler talk.’”
The reputation for tactlessness that Peterson earned during a national media blitz before his 2009 arrest could work against him now, added another Chicago attorney, Michael Helfand.
After Stacy Peterson vanished, her husband joked about organizing a “Win a Date with Drew” contest” and discussed appearing on a reality TV show about a Nevada brothel.
“If he were a more sympathetic person, jurors might say, ‘Hey, we can’t put a guy in prison on the based on” secondhand information, Helfand said. “That’d be persuasive if he wasn’t perceived as a scumbag.”
Though jurors appeared to leap immediately into the hearsay evidence, it became clear later in the day that they also hadn’t resolved another critical question: Was Savio’s death even a murder?
Jurors sent another note asking for photographs of Savio’s body as it was found jammed into her bathtub. They also wanted autopsy photos, including one of Savio’s skull cut away to reveal her brain.
Prosecutor Chris Koch told jurors Tuesday it would have been impossible for Savio to suffer the wound on the back of her head and 14 bruises on the front of her body unless someone had attacked her.
“How can you get (all those wounds) in one fall?” he asked. “You can’t.”
Lopez conceded that fatal slips in bathtubs are one in a million, but he insisted all the evidence suggests that’s just what happened to Savio.
“Are you trying to tell me no one has ever slipped in a bathtub before?” he asked. “That’s why they sell rubber mats with suction cups on them.”
Peterson has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in Savio’s death. He was charged only after Stacy Peterson disappeared and Savio’s body was exhumed and reexamined. Her death was reclassified from an accident to a murder.
Prosecutors were barred from mentioning that Stacy Peterson is presumed dead and that her husband is the lone suspect in her disappearance, although he has never been charged.