Circumstantial case means it could be hard to convict Drew Peterson
BY DAN ROZEK Staff Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org July 27, 2012 4:40PM
Retired Bolingbrook Police Sgt. Drew Peterson arrives at the Will County Courthouse in Joliet on May 8, 2009, for arraignment on charges of first-degree murder in the death of his former wife, Kathleen Savio. | M. Spencer Green~AP file photo
Updated: August 30, 2012 6:24AM
They have no eyewitnesses, no confession and no DNA to show ex-Bolingbrook cop Drew Peterson killed Kathleen Savio — only disputed secondhand statements and conflicting autopsy reports.
That limited, sometimes contradictory, circumstantial evidence means Will County prosecutors are going to have a hard time convincing jurors the now 58-year-old Peterson murdered his third wife, legal experts say.
“I think it’s really going to be tough for the state,” said attorney Paul DeLuca, a former prosecutor in Cook and DuPage counties now in private practice.
“The prosecution is going to have an uphill fight,” agreed Sam Amirante, who defended serial killer John Wayne Gacy and later served as a Cook County judge.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for prosecutors is that Savio’s 2004 bathtub drowning death — which occurred while she still was fighting with her ex-husband over their finances — initially was ruled an accident.
It was only after Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy, vanished in October 2007 that her death was re-examined and, after a new autopsy of her remains, labeled a homicide.
Just convincing jurors beyond a reasonable doubt that the 40-year-old Savio was murdered could be a tough sell for prosecutors.
“Are not two causes of death reasonable doubt?” asked Richard Kling, a law professor at Chicago Kent College. “I think the prosecution has a hard burden to overcome just on the autopsies.”
While prosecutors can win convictions in circumstantial cases, typically that evidence includes specific, indisputable proof that a defendant was involved in a crime.
Often, that involves DNA evidence, fingerprints, hair or tissue samples.
There’s no indication prosecutors have collected any such evidence tying Peterson to Savio’s death.
That alone makes the case unique.
“There are no other cases I recall with conflicting causes (of death) and only hearsay statements,” said Kling, a lawyer for 40 years.
Hearsay evidence key
Much of the focus of pre-trial hearings and a two-year long appeals battle has focused on so-called hearsay statements purportedly made by Savio and Stacy Peterson that prosecutors contend link Drew Peterson to Savio’s death.
But medical testimony from experts, including Dr. Larry Blum, a pathologist who examined Savio’s body after her 2007 exhumation and concluded she was murdered, may be even more critical, legal experts said.
Blum and other pathologists called by prosecutors are expected to testify that bruises and abrasions on both of Savio’s arms, along with a one-inch long cut on her scalp, couldn’t have been caused by an accidental fall in her own tub. Instead, they were injuries she suffered struggling with an attacker, the experts likely will say.
“The pathology is really going to be important. “If (jurors) accept it wasn’t an accidental death, (Peterson) could be in trouble,” DeLuca said.
Other experts agree, saying compelling medical testimony could convince jurors the initial autopsy and investigation that concluded Savio died accidentally simply were wrong.
“You can make a case they missed something,” said veteran defense attorney Terry Ekl, a former Cook County prosecutor.
The hearsay evidence prosecutors expect to use is intended to bolster the medical findings that Savio was murdered and also point to Peterson as her attacker.
That evidence includes written statements Savio made to police and a prosecutor in which she alleged Peterson threatened her with a knife during a 2002 confrontation in her home.
She made similar allegations in conversations that same year with her sister, while she told a friend Peterson grabbed her by the throat and claimed he could kill her and make her death look like an accident.
A crucial statement from Stacy Peterson likely to be heard at the trial alleges that she was coached by Peterson to lie and tell police he was home with her on the night authorities contend Savio was killed.
In 2007, Stacy allegedly told her minister, Rev. Neil Schori, she saw Peterson return to their Bolingbrook late at night, dressed in black and carrying a bag of women’s clothes that weren’t hers.
Tough road to conviction
Even if prosecutors can convince jurors that Savio’s death was a murder and use Stacy Peterson’s purported statements to her minister to undercut Peterson’s alibi, it doesn’t mean he’ll be found guilty, several experts said.
“The prosecution still has a difficult time proving Drew Peterson killed her,” Ekl said.
Jurors may feel there are suspicious circumstances surrounding Savio’s death, but still not believe there’s enough evidence to convict Peterson — or anyone — of murdering her, said Stuart Chanen, a former federal prosecutor.
Other hearsay statements from Savio and Stacy Peterson that may be allowed as evidence by Judge Edward Burmila could help corroborate their claims, prosecutors have said.
Stacy also allegedly told a friend, Scott Russetto, a similar account about discovering Peterson returning to their home the night before Savio was discovered dead.
Even those statements, however, don’t definitively put Peterson inside Savio’s Bolingbrook house in the hours before she was found dead on March 1, 2004.
Peterson’s lawyers have dismissed the hearsay statements as concocted or uncorroborated, arguing prosecutors lack any evidence to show Peterson played a role in his former wife’s death—which they repeatedly have said was an accidental drowning.
That will be clear to jurors when they hear the evidence, his lawyers have predicted.
“And they’re not going to be able to find he did it because there’s no evidence that he did it,” defense attorney Steve Greenberg has said.
Medical experts called by Peterson’s attorneys are expected to testify that Savio fell and accidentally drowned in her own bathtub.
It’s never clear, though, how much jurors rely on conflicting testimony from dueling experts.
“Often, the jury cancels those out,” Ekl said. “The jury is going to look at the circumstances and evidence themselves. They’re not going to be driven by expert testimony.”
Jurors ultimately might base their verdict simply on which version of events — a tragic household accident or a carefully staged murder — makes the most sense to them.
“Jurors love circumstantial cases because they can be the detectives and put the case together,” said DeLuca, a lawyer for 33 years. “If they convict him, it’ll be because something didn’t make sense to them, it didn’t fit.”
State’s Attorney James Glasgow has declined to comment specifically about the evidence but spokesman Charles Pelkie said Friday prosecutors are “eager for the trial to begin.”
“The state’s attorney and his team will do their arguing in court,” Pelkie said.