Updated: November 4, 2011 7:33PM
Going to bat for accused wife killer Drew Peterson is not pleasant. He’s a fairly obnoxious character, given to smirking on talk radio, and the circumstances surrounding the death of one wife and the disappearance of another stink to high heaven.
So let us be clear: We’re not going to bat for Peterson today, but for the rule of law.
We believe it’s time to free Peterson from the Will County Jail, where he has been held without trial for two years and three months, and put him under less restrictive house arrest. To keep him in jail while prosecutors plod through yet another round of pretrial motions is to deny him his constitutional right to be free, in the words of the Eighth Amendment, of “cruel and unusual punishments.”
This is a sacred phrase in American jurisprudence, first to be found in the English Bill of Rights of 1689.
Peterson’s lawyers, in a motion filed with the Illinois Supreme Court on Tuesday, argue that their client should be freed altogether while awaiting trial, and we’re sympathetic to that view. Much of the evidence presented at a hearing 14 months ago that resulted in Peterson’s continued jailing was of the hearsay variety — what one person allegedly said to another person — and, as we have argued before, we doubt the constitutionality of such evidence.
But the state Supreme Court may well view the matter differently and allow such evidence — precisely what prosecutors have asked the court to do this fall — and that makes Peterson a legitimate flight risk if he is not grounded by at least a monitoring bracelet. A bright guy, he might reasonably calculate that his odds of winning at trial are grim if the hearsay evidence is allowed.
Holding a defendant in custody for years on end is generally a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to a “speedy trial,” as well as a violation of the Illinois State Constitution, but there are sensible exceptions. In cases of murder, for example, the state constitution allows for the accused person to be held without bail “where the proof is evident or the presumption great.”
Unfortunately for Peterson’s prosecutors, they have failed, at least in open court, to present any “evident” proof. The hearsay stuff — what the two wives allegedly told others — looks to be the core of their case.
“Unless the prosecutor is willing to tell the court what evidence they’ve got, it’s time to let Peterson out on bond,” DePaul University Law Professor Leonard Cavise told us. “Where the proof is great, we need to see great proof. But we’ve seen no weapons, no DNA, no prints, no statements from the defendant and no eyewitnesses.”
The prosecutors also have failed to make a convincing case that Peterson is sufficiently dangerous to witnesses or to society in general to keep him in jail. He will be watched wherever he goes. There is even a movie in the works, starring Rob Lowe as Drew Peterson.
If Peterson is allowed the greater freedom of house arrest, we’ll be as annoyed as anybody if he starts setting up dates with callers to a talk radio show, as he did before.
But Peterson deserves the same presumption of innocence and the same due process as any other American.