CHICAGO – Drew Peterson’s wisecracking, limelight-hogging, sunglasses-wearing lawyers faced the media horde every day of the former suburban Chicago police officer’s 2012 trial – one that ended with a murder conviction and a falling out among the erstwhile colleagues.
But the lawyerly war of words in public between lead trial counsel Joel Brodsky and former partner-turned-nemesis Steve Greenberg that began within hours of the trial’s end will come to a head today at a hearing where the defense will argue Peterson deserves a new trial because Brodsky did a shoddy job.
It’s just the latest of many peculiar chapters in the saga of the former Bolingbrook police sergeant, who gained notoriety after his much younger fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, vanished in 2007. There was speculation Peterson sought to parlay his law enforcement expertise to get away with murder.
If Will County Judge Edward Burmila rejects the motion for a retrial, he has said he will proceed quickly to sentencing. Peterson, 59, faces a maximum 60-year prison term for murdering his third wife, Kathleen Savio, who was found dead in her bathtub with a gash on her head.
Disagreements among legal teams during trials aren’t uncommon, but those spats spilling into public are, said Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago-area defense attorney who isn’t connected to the Peterson case.
“A new team of lawyers might accuse an old team of lawyers of making mistakes at the trial – but lawyers on the same trial team blaming each other? I’ve never heard of anything like this,” he said.
The feud escalated earlier this month when Brodsky filed a defamation lawsuit against Greenberg.
The suit claims Greenberg became “irrationally fixated and obsessed with destroying Brodsky” and held Brodsky up to “great public scorn, hatred, contempt (and) ridicule.”
In an open letter to Brodsky in September, Greenberg accused him of “single-handedly” losing the trial, adding he “wafted the greatest case by ignorance, obduracy and ineptitude.”
The current acrimony stands in contrast to the start of the trial, when the defense team was a united front. Several times, they joked that Stacy Peterson – whose body has not been found – could show up any day to take the stand.
If Brodsky ends up taking the stand at today’s hearing, he may face aggressive cross-examination by Greenberg and his other erstwhile colleagues. There’s even an outside chance Peterson himself could be asked testify.
Among the accusations against Brodsky, one is that he was so bent on self-publicity that he pressed Peterson to go a pretrial media blitz that ended up damaging the former officer’s cause.
But the hearing’s focus is expected to be a decision that backfired during trial and when fractures started to become apparent – calling divorce lawyer Harry Smith to be a witness for the defense. Greenberg says that was Brodsky’s decision; Brodsky says all the defense lawyers at the trial agreed on it.
Under questioning by Brodsky, Smith told jurors that Stacy Peterson had asked him a question before she vanished: Could she squeeze more money out of her husband in divorce proceedings if she threatened to tell police that he murdered Savio three years earlier?
Brodsky hoped Smith’s testimony that Stacy Peterson allegedly sought to extort her husband would dent the credibility of statements she made to others that Drew Peterson threatened to kill her.
But during his testimony, Smith kept stressing how Stacy Peterson seemed to sincerely believe her husband had killed Savio. Prosecutors could barely contain their joy, with chief state’s prosecutor James Glasgow calling it “a gift from God.” And some jurors said later that Smith’s testimony convinced them to convict Peterson.
Judges rarely grant retrials, even in egregious cases of missteps. And when they do, it is usually because an attorney didn’t make a certain argument or call a witness who might have exonerated a defendant, explained Kathleen Zellner, another Chicago-area defense attorney.
Peterson himself will also be hard-pressed to say he didn’t appreciate the pitfalls, since Burmila took the exceptional step during the trial of telling defense attorneys – with jurors out of the room – that calling Smith was risky.
“It’s usually not for something an attorney did but for what they did not do,” she said.
But seemingly nothing can be ruled out in the Peterson case, which has been full of oddities since it first made headlines in 2007. His trial was the first in Illinois history where prosecutors built their case on hearsay thanks to a new law tailored specifically for the case, dubbed “Drew’s Law.”
Savio’s drowning death was initially deemed an accident, a freak slip in the tub. But after Stacy Peterson vanished, Savio’s body was re-examined and her death was reclassified as a homicide.
Still, most legal observers agreed the mistrial motion is a longshot – at best.
“Nothing in this case has been usual,” Pissetzky said. “But the chances for this motion to success are slim to none – and slim just left the building.”