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Experts: 3-year-old Drew Peterson jury pool unusual, could lead to complications

Drew Peterson

Drew Peterson

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Updated: August 21, 2012 6:05AM

Lawyers next week are scheduled to engage in the final formality standing between Drew Peterson and his long-awaited murder trial — jury selection.

The 12 people who could decide whether Peterson murdered third wife Kathleen Savio will soon be chosen. And for more than 200 Will County residents it’s been a long time coming.

They’ve lived under a judge’s order since August 2009 not to follow news of what could be the most high-profile case in Will County’s history. Defense lawyers tried to convince the judge to pick from a new group, arguing no Illinois jury pool has ever been on hold for as long as Peterson’s.

Andrea Lyon, a DePaul University law professor and former attorney for accused Florida daughter killer Casey Anthony, said the use of such an old jury pool invites a reversal in the case by an appellate court. But Neil Adams, a criminal defense attorney who spent 10 years as a Will County prosecutor, sums up the old pool as just another quirk in Peterson’s already bizarre five-year legal saga.

“It’s odd,” Adams said. “But this is an odd case.”

Peterson is getting ready to go on trial for the 40-year-old Savio’s 2004 drowning death. Her body was found in her dry bathtub and her death was initially ruled an accident.

But her body was exhumed in 2007 after Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy, went missing. Savio’s death was reclassified a homicide and Peterson was charged with her murder in May 2009. Stacy is still missing and her husband is the prime suspect.

Will County Court Administrator Kurt Sangmeister said Peterson’s former judge set aside a pool of about 235 potential jurors in 2009. Some of its members have moved away during the lengthy appeal process that put Peterson’s trial on hold. Others have died or have medical problems, but he said the pool still includes more than 200 people — though their identities haven’t been released.

Shortly after Peterson returned to the Will County courthouse when his appeal ended this spring, defense lawyer Joel Brodsky asked Judge Edward Burmila for a new pool of jurors. He said he doubted that group followed the order not to pay attention to the case since 2009.

He said it’s “basic human nature,” and it’s like telling someone to stand in a corner and not think about a pink, striped elephant.

“They’re going to go to the corner and they’re going to think about the striped elephant,” Brodsky said.

Burmila didn’t buy it, and he denied Brodsky’s request. More than a month later, though, the defense team said it had a change of heart. Its members said Wednesday they don’t think they’ll have any trouble finding jurors who did as the judge said. And they said that could be a good sign.

“If they were able to do that for two years, that means they were able to follow the court orders,” Peterson lawyer Joseph Lopez said.

Lisa Blue, a Dallas-based former prosecutor and jury selection expert, recently made an argument similar to Brodsky’s, though. She said Burmila is taking an unnecessary risk by using the old jury pool, and she has no doubt its members violated the judge’s order.

“It’s like they can’t help themselves,” Blue said.

Adams, who has spent his entire 20-year legal career in Will County, said jurors take their oaths more seriously than that. Though he said he’s never seen a jury pool put on hold for this long, he said it could give Peterson a better shot at a fair trial.

If at least some potential jurors followed the order, he said, they’ll know less about the case.

“It doesn’t mean people haven’t seen it,” Adams said.

Leonard Cavise, a colleague of Lyon’s at DePaul, said it’s “highly unusual” for a group of potential jurors to have to wait so long, and he said he has no confidence the pool’s 200 members insulated themselves from Peterson news. He said they likely wore their status as a badge of honor instead.

“They’ve probably been bragging, ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to be on the Drew Peterson jury,’” Cavise said.

And that would prompt others to talk to them about the case. It’d be better for Peterson, Cavise said, to pick from a pool of potential jurors who haven’t had this hanging over their head for three years.

“People who come into the case as fresh as they can come in,” Cavise said.

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