Drew Peterson heads to trial in third wife’s death
CHICAGO (AP) — For a man whose fourth wife had just disappeared, Drew Peterson didn’t sound the least bit worried. He seemed almost gleeful, suggesting that she had run off with another man and that all her threats of divorce coincided with her menstrual cycle.
Authorities investigating that disappearance back in 2007 soon started wondering if Peterson might have been involved with the earlier drowning death of his third wife. But that didn’t faze him. He joked about a “Win a Date With Drew” contest and discussed appearing on a reality TV show about a Nevada brothel.
The crass swagger continued even after the former suburban Chicago police officer was arrested in the drowning, which had originally been ruled an accident. Peterson called a radio show — collect, from jail — to joke about a “Win a Conjugal Visit With Drew” game.
Five years after he became an object of national scorn, Peterson is about to go on trial on charges that he murdered Kathleen Savio in 2004. His fourth wife, Stacy, has never been found.
Observers say Peterson may benefit from the three years he’s been behind bars and out of the public eye.
“He really was becoming one of the more hated individuals in America,” said Joe Tacopina, a prominent defense attorney in New York. “Because he was in jail, he took himself off the front page, and that can only help him with a jury pool.”
Peterson’s attorney agreed.
“Nobody’s going to deny that Drew’s relatively goofy behavior rubbed people the wrong way,” said Joel Brodsky, who explained Peterson’s actions as both the byproduct of a sometimes grim job and his way of moving on after his wife left him.
“The fact that he hasn’t been at that for a period of years certainly helps some of his past antics fade from memory.”
The case, which begins Monday with jury selection, is sure to rekindle memories of the media frenzy that engulfed Peterson before his arrest, when he often joked with an army of news crews camped outside his house and even invited Geraldo Rivera into his kitchen.
Reporters from around the country and maybe from as far away as Japan will descend on a courthouse in Joliet to watch the latest chapter of a story that has already spawned a couple of books and a cable TV movie starring Rob Lowe as Peterson.
The frenetic coverage “absolutely has the possibility of reigniting,” said Mark Geragos, a prominent California defense attorney who has been at the center of comparable firestorms, including when he represented Scott Peterson (no relation), a California man convicted of murdering his young wife and unborn child.
Prosecutors expect to tell a relatively simple story: Drew Peterson killed his ex-wife to keep her from making off with much of his money in a contentious divorce. Sometime around Feb. 29, 2004, according to the indictment, Peterson went to Savio’s house and in the bathroom caused her “to inhale fluid,” killing her.
But that simple story is complicated by what happened after Savio’s body was discovered by a friend of Peterson’s. Peterson had called the friend to the house to look for Savio, saying he was worried.
The investigation unfolded nothing like the ones jurors may have seen on television programs such as “CSI” and “Law & Order.”
Detectives are expected to testify, as they did at a hearing in 2010, that nobody collected a single fingerprint or hair fiber at the house. They will likely acknowledge that Savio’s relatives, who could have told investigators about the couple’s ongoing battles, were never interviewed.
Jurors may also hear, as a judge did at the 2010 hearing, that Peterson was allowed to sit in on a police interview with Stacy Peterson as a “professional courtesy.” This happened while officers were trying to confirm Peterson’s whereabouts the weekend Savio died.
They may hear from another detective who has already testified that he was “disgusted” by the investigation, that he thought Stacy Peterson was “hiding something” and that he strongly suspected Savio’s death was not an accident.
When it does come up, it will be prosecutors who ask about it.
“You have to bring out all your failures, all the flaws of the case, yourself,” said Marcia Clark, the former Los Angeles deputy district attorney who led the unsuccessful prosecution of O.J. Simpson.
The two sides will also argue over something that is rarely an issue in a murder trial: Whether a murder was actually committed.
Because Savio’s death was originally ruled an accidental drowning, prosecutors will present pathologists to explain that an examination of Savio’s body after it was exhumed revealed she had been killed.
Brodsky said he has three pathologists ready to testify that Savio’s death was, as originally determined, an accident.
The defense is bound to use the disputed findings to put forth its own theory about why Peterson was charged — “because of heat from law enforcement,” Geragos said.
If there is any physical evidence linking Peterson to the crime, prosecutors have not said what it is. Instead, the case they present to the jury is expected to be largely, if not totally, circumstantial.
Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow, who famously said after Peterson’s arrest in 2009 that Savio would speak “from the grave,” is expected to call witnesses to testify about what Savio and Stacy Peterson told them.
Already, people have testified at a previous hearing that Savio described episodes in which Peterson held a knife to her throat and told her there was nothing she could do to protect herself from him.
Even without physical evidence, jurors can convict suspects on circumstantial cases. And they do so often.
“The jury is going to look at this like a web, and good circumstantial cases put the defendant in the middle of that web,” said David Erickson, a former state appellate judge who teaches law at Chicago Kent College of Law.
The biggest question is whether Peterson will take the stand. Brodsky will not say. In many cases, attorneys reserve that decision until after prosecutors complete their evidence.
But Erickson suggested that Peterson might have to testify.
Good circumstantial cases “force defendants to take the stand,” he said. “You are in the middle of that web, and you’ve got to come up with an alternate explanation of how you got there.”