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Drew Peterson murder trial to start at the end of July

Drew Peters(left) makes his way inWill County Courthouse Thursday May 17 2012 14 W. JeffersSt. Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

Drew Peterson (left) makes his way into the Will County Courthouse Thursday, May 17, 2012, at 14 W. Jefferson St. in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 17, 2012 7:09PM

Just as he was about to confirm Drew Peterson’s long-awaited murder trial will start at the end of July, the judge asked the former Bolingbrook police sergeant if he had any reservations about the date.

“I’ve been in solitary confinement for three years, your honor,” Peterson said.

His lawyers told him to hush, but it was done. Jury selection in Peterson’s trial for the drowning death of his third wife, 40-year-old Kathleen Savio, will begin July 23. Opening statements start July 31.

And once it’s underway, prosecutors will not be allowed to mention any presumption that his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, might be dead too. Will County Judge Edward Burmila laid out that and several other ground rules in an hours-long hearing Thursday to prepare for Peterson’s trial.

An Illinois appellate court ruling cleared the way last month for the trial to finally begin, and lawyers on both sides have said they’re eager to get started. It’s been three years since Peterson was arrested on murder charges for Savio’s death, and now his trial is less than 10 weeks away.

Savio was found dead in a dry bathtub in 2004 while she and Peterson were in the midst of a bitter divorce. Peterson’s attorneys argue prosecutors have no physical evidence to tie Peterson to her death, and they even asked the judge to bar prosecutors from convicting him “upon innuendo.”

Burmila shot them down, though, and suggested they ask him for a verdict after prosecutors put on their case.

“You’re asking me to have a trial in advance of a trial,” Burmila said.

But the judge’s decision to bar any mention of Stacy Peterson’s possible death was a partial victory for the defense team. Her 2007 disappearance prompted authorities to revisit Savio’s death, which was initially ruled an accident.

“I guess you’d have to be living under a rock not to know what’s gone on in this case,” defense lawyer Steven Greenberg conceded.

But Burmila said prosecutors may ask witnesses why they waited for years to talk to police about Savio’s death. Some witnesses are expected to testify they didn’t call police until Stacy Peterson went missing.

Thursday’s hearing began in Burmila’s small 20-seat courtroom but moved to a larger courtroom after a lunch break. There Peterson was allowed to sit unshackled at a desk among his attorneys. He again wore glasses, a blue prison jumpsuit and sported a thinner beard.

He seemed calm throughout the proceedings, and he managed to get through the day without landing himself in hot water with a bailiff the way he did a few weeks ago.

Sue Doman, Savio’s sister, and husband Mitchell Doman also watched wearing buttons featuring Savio’s face. At Greenberg’s request, Burmila said those won’t be allowed in the trial.

The judge said prosecutors can’t argue the Rev. Neil Schori, or any other witness, has enhanced credibility because he’s a minister. Schori’s expected to testify that Stacy Peterson told him her husband coached her “for hours” to lie to police when questioned about Savio’s death.

But still pending is a request from Peterson’s team to bar testimony from attorney Harry C. Smith, who they said violated attorney-client privilege when he testified at an evidentiary hearing about conversations he had with Savio and Stacy Peterson.

Burmila found those conversations were covered by attorney-client privilege, but he said Savio might have waived that privilege when she purportedly told Smith, “If I die, you have to go to the authorities and tell them that Drew did it.”

Attorneys will argue about that and other defense motions — Peterson’ lawyers said more could be coming — when they return to Burmila’s courtroom June 6.

Greenberg predicted Peterson’s trial will last about a month. But opening statements in the case are now planned just two weeks before the trial of another high-profile Will County defendant: alleged family-killer Christopher Vaughn.

Though the cases are handled in different courtrooms, the men have at least one prosecutor in common. Vaughn is scheduled to go to trial August 13.

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