Blunders jeopardize Peterson murder trial

Published: Monday, Aug. 20, 2012 5:30 a.m.CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
In this file photo taken Aug. 14,Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow, far right, leaves the Will County Courthouse in Joliet with his prosecution team as the Drew Peterson murder trial continues. The trial in which Peterson is accused of killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio, is heavily based on hearsay evidence and has been complicated by a series of blunders by the prosecution team.

CHICAGO – With no physical evidence tying Drew Peterson to the death of his third wife and so much of the case hinging on what she said before she died and what his next wife said before she vanished, it was a certainty that his trial would be unlike anything ever seen in Illinois and in the country.

But nobody expected what unfolded in the first three weeks of the trial: Prosecutors made a series of blunders that prompted the judge to consider at least three defense motions for a mistrial, and legal experts are wondering just how much trust is left.

“If the jury can’t trust the prosecution, everything after that fails,” said Daniel Coyne, a professor at Chicago Kent School of Law and a former criminal defense lawyer, adding that it is not a big leap for jurors who don’t trust prosecutors not to trust the witnesses they call to testify. “The judge has told the jury on a number of occasions that the prosecutor has done something wrong ... [If] they transfer that wrongness to the witnesses, that is very dangerous.”

It’s particularly important for prosecutors to connect with jurors in a trial such as Peterson’s, which relies heavily on what the former suburban Chicago police officer’s ex-wife, Kathleen Savio, told others before – as the prosecution alleges – he killed her and left her body in a bathtub in 2004.

Peterson also is a suspect in the disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, though he has never been charged in that case and maintains she is still alive.

Prosecutors are trying to let jurors hear Savio’s voice “from the grave” to convince them not only that her death was a murder but that Peterson was capable of making it look like an accident, which authorities initially determined.

While Will County Judge Edward Burmila hasn’t declared a mistrial, he has harshly criticized prosecutors – sometimes in front of the jury – for saying things or asking questions they shouldn’t have.

As the trial enters its fourth week, there is a growing speculation the next big mistake might be the prosecution’s last, and Burmila could declare a mistrial and send the jurors home.

And even if that doesn’t happen, it’s unclear how much his public admonishment of prosecutors has hurt their credibility in the eyes of a jury deliberating whether Peterson, who has been locked up for three years during the investigation, should stay behind bars or go free.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said David Erickson, a former state appellate judge who teaches at Chicago Kent College of Law, who has followed the trial closely.

On Friday, the judge barred testimony from a man who at a 2010 hearing said Stacy Peterson told him days before she vanished that her husband came in late the night Savio died and said, “If anybody ever asks, I was home.”

The defense motioned for a mistrial each time prosecutors attempted to put before jurors testimony about Drew Peterson’s character or Savio’s fears of her ex-husband.

While Coyne, Erickson and others said what is going on would be dangerous to any prosecutors, it could be particularly so in Will County, where jurors are bound to be aware of recent law enforcement blunders.

“That could definitely be a factor,” said Kathleen Zellner, a defense attorney who won a multimillion-dollar court judgment on behalf of Riley Fox’s father, Kevin, and the child’s mother. “There’s a history there and jurors came [to the case] well informed.”

But others wonder if prosecutors are taking a deliberate risk by getting allegations about Peterson before the jury in the hopes that jurors will not disregard them, even if the judge orders them to.

“I think what they are doing is very calculated,” said Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago defense lawyer with no link to the case. “They are not young prosecutors who just got out of law school.”

The prosecution team includes Glasgow, a lawyer for more than 30 years, and Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Patton, a 19-year veteran of the office.

Prosecutors have apologized profusely for what they have characterized as inadvertent errors – particularly the question Patton asked about the order of protection. And Erickson doesn’t buy Pissetsky’s theory that prosecutors are purposely putting inadmissible allegations in jurors’ heads.

“I think the pressure’s gotten to them,” Erickson said, though he still predicts a conviction “unless this insanity goes on.”

Zellner said in her two days sitting in the courtroom, she became convinced prosecutors were winning the jury over. Jurors are intently taking notes when prosecutors question witnesses and “rolling their eyes” when Peterson’s attorneys object, she said.

Besides, she said, similar reports emerged about prosecutors in California during the trial of Scott Peterson before he was convicted in 2004 in the deaths of his wife, Laci, and the couple’s unborn son. Peterson, who is no relation to Drew Peterson, was sentenced to death.

“It was all an illusion that they weren’t winning,” Zellner said.

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