JOLIET – One expects coordinated outfits from cheerleaders, fast-food workers, military units – clowns even. It fosters unity of purpose, team spirit. But color-coordinated jurors? And at a murder trial, no less?
For a month, the jurors at the sensational murder trial of former suburban Chicago police officer Drew Peterson have been filing into court wearing matching clothes – all yellow one day; other days black, blue or green. They’ve even walked in wearing alternating red, white and blue.
And the coordinated attire hasn’t been just about color. Once, it was business suits. Then there was the day they all wore jerseys from sports teams – mostly Chicago Bears and White Sox, though one was a Green Bay Packers shirt, and none for the Cubs.
The oddity has left courtroom observers scratching their heads. It has led to jokes and banter among the judge and attorneys.
But it’s also raised questions about propriety and precedent during a trial in which evidence against Peterson has included descriptions of his violent threats and grisly photos of his dead wife, Kathleen Savio, who was found dead in her bathtub in 2004.
It’s unclear what – if any – message jurors might be sending, because no one can speak to them. But one thing is clear about the 12 panelists expected to begin deliberations after closing arguments this week: At least they are unanimous about what to wear.
“If they came in wearing T-shirts saying ‘Drew’s Guilty,’ it’d be different,” said Lisa Lopez, one of Peterson’s attorneys. “I think it means they are unified about coming to a decision.”
Some have expressed disquiet over the wardrobe stunts, believing it conveys a lack of seriousness.
“I think it is strange,” said Kathleen Zellner, a Chicago-area defense attorney who has handled high-profile cases in Will County and sat in on several days of Peterson testimony. “This is a homicide case. ... It isn’t a sporting event.”
Peterson, 58, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the death of Savio, 40. If convicted, he faces a maximum 60-year term.
Savio’s death was initially ruled an accident. It was re-examined and reclassified a homicide only after the 2007 disappearance of Peterson’s next wife, 23-year-old Stacy Peterson. Authorities presume she is dead and consider her husband to be the only suspect, though he has not been charged in her case.
The trial hasn’t been easy on jurors.
They’ve sat through five weeks of sometimes gruesome testimony that included crime-scene photographs of Savio’s naked, bloated body and autopsy photos that showed the top of her skull cut away. The trial has also featured frequent stops and starts, in part due to prosecution missteps after which the judge cleared the courtroom to reprimand the state’s attorney and his team.
No one, except those on the jury, knows what jurors will be wearing Tuesday, when closing arguments are scheduled. The jurors haven’t been sequestered, so they have been able to go home each evening having agreed on what to wear the next day.
They caused a particular stir when they wore the jerseys. Judge Edward Burmila – a White Sox fan – cheerfully noted an absence of jerseys of their cross-town rivals, the Cubs. Jurors were obviously intelligent, he told the courtroom, because “nobody has any Cubs clothes on.”
Defense attorney Steve Greenberg even worked the jerseys into his questioning of a witness, Savio friend Mary Pontarelli. Glancing at the jury box, Greenberg asked what jersey she’d prefer.
“Sox,” she responded without missing a beat.
“Instant credibility!” Greenberg boomed, thrusting his finger into the air.
The judge struck the attorney’s exclamation from the record, though he quipped he wouldn’t strike the witness’s response.
On the day jurors wore business suits, Burmila said admiringly, “Ah, sartorial splendor.”
If Burmila has any reservations about the jurors’ attire, he hasn’t said so. But their apparel has prompted armchair commentary from court veterans, most of whom say they have never heard or seen anything like it.
Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor critical of the displays, said if he were Peterson, he would be worried about what the color schemes might portend – particularly the synchronized red, white and blue.
“That suggests a display of patriotism,” Turner said. “Displays of patriotism are never good for a defendant.”
But Chicago attorney Michael Helfand sees no problem with what the Peterson jurors are doing. The uniformity of dress, he said, simply suggests jurors are both getting along and trying to break the monotony.
“It’s not easy to sit there in a high-profile case,” Helfand said. “It’s a boring, thankless task. They can be miserable or try to make the best of it. They’re clearly making the best of it.”
Helfand said judges typically treat jurors deferentially and, even if Burmila wasn’t entirely happy with the practice, he might be reluctant to rebuke them.
“You want your jurors to take a trial seriously but also to be happy,” he said. “If they get admonished, it could kill their morale.”
Others note a circus atmosphere has surrounded the case going back years, citing how the swaggering, glib former Bolingbrook police sergeant hit the talk-show circuit to declare his innocence and a cable TV movie about the case starring Rob Lowe as Peterson.
“(Jurors) know this trial is getting national attention – and I think they are trying to get in on it,” said former federal prosecutor Julian Solotorovsky. “But jurors aren’t supposed to be in the limelight. They’re not supposed to be part of the story.”