Convicted murderer Drew Peterson is a villain straight out of central casting — an allegedly crooked suburban cop who bumped off spouses who drew his ire.
Nine years ago, the 62-year-old Peterson made big news amid allegations that he had killed two of his wives. The story even prompted a made-for-TV movie starring Rob Lowe as the barbarous babe-hound himself.
These days, Peterson is rotting in the maximum security Menard Correctional Center. His parole date is May 2047.
But Peterson’s fate is not yet resolved because of a fundamental legal principle — even the most rotten people are entitled to a fair trial. Was Peterson properly convicted? Or did judicial error and incompetent lawyers lead to a wrongful conviction?
A state appeals court upheld Peterson’s conviction in November 2015. But last week, the seven-member Illinois Supreme Court announced it will hear Peterson’s appeal.
Because the court hears only a small portion of the hundreds of cases it’s asked to review each year, Peterson lawyer Steven Greenberg was gleeful.
"I don’t think they would say, ‘We’re gonna hear the case,’ if they didn’t think there was a problem. Clearly, they think there was some problem," he told the Chicago Tribune.
The evidence against Peterson was not overwhelming, although one would have to be incredibly naive to view him as an innocent man.
Peterson was convicted in 2012 for the 2004 murder of his third wife, 40-year-old Kathleen Savio. She was found unclothed and dead in the bathtub of her Bolingbrook home — there was no water in the bath tub and no evidence she’d been bathing. The cause of death was drowning; the manner of death was undetermined.
A coroner’s inquest ruled Savio’s death was accidental. Subsequent autopsies concluded she was murdered.
Savio’s death investigation did not gather steam until Stacy Peterson, Drew Peterson’s fourth wife, disappeared in 2007. Although presumed dead, Stacy Peterson’s body has not been found.
The defense noted prosecutors "never presented any physical evidence linking Peterson to Savio’s death" and had no witnesses who placed him at Savio’s home around the time of her death.
Nonetheless, the 3rd District Appellate Court unanimously affirmed Peterson’s conviction, the three-judge panel unanimously concluding that Savio was murdered and that "the remaining circumstantial evidence and the reasonable inferences therefrom showed" Peterson did it.
On appeal, the defense raised a variety of issues, including the contention that defense lawyer Joel Brodsky was ineffective in court and had a financial conflict of interest because Brodsky signed contracts with media outlets that put his financial interests at odds with Peterson’s interests.
The strength of the prosecution case was hearsay testimony — statements made by Savio and Stacy Peterson to defense witnesses — that implicated Drew Peterson in Savio’s death.
Hearsay — what a third party says to someone — is generally not admissible because it denies a defendant the opportunity to confront his accusers.
In this case, Drew Peterson’s indirect accusers — Savio and Stacy Peterson — are either dead or presumed dead.
Prosecutors won admission of the hearsay statements under one of the exceptions to the hearsay rule — forfeiture by wrongdoing. It’s based on the principle that a defendant who kills a witness to prevent that witness from testifying forfeits his right to object to the hearsay testimony of what the dead witness would have said.
That ruling, however, is in jeopardy for a very good reason.
But first things first — who were the hearsay witnesses and what did they say?
They included Savio’s sister, Savio’s neighbor, Savio’s nursing school classmate, Stacy Peterson’s lawyer and Stacy Peterson’s minister.
The appellate court summed up their bombshell testimony.
It said Peterson "had the motive to kill" Savio because of their divorce and pending property settlement, had "repeatedly stated his intention" to kill her, "had tried to hire someone" to kill her, "had the opportunity to kill her," was "missing from his own residence at the time of the murder," and "had admitted to Stacy (Peterson) that he had" killed Savio.
Any jury hearing that evidence would be inclined to convict.
The defense, however, contends the jury should not have been allowed to hear it. It contends that its admission on the theory that Savio was killed to prevent her testimony is mistaken because there was no legal dispute in which her testimony was needed.
"In the absence of (Peterson’s) intent to avoid (Savio’s) testimony, the very rationale for the forfeiture-by-wrongdoing collapses," defense lawyer Greenberg said in his petition asking for Supreme Court review. "The legal issue that the appellate court avoided is of critical importance. The trial court allowed the contested hearsay statements without finding, or even explaining what testimony (Drew Peterson) allegedly tried to avoid. The prosecution never introduced probative evidence to show why (Drew Peterson) would have wanted to avoid Kathleen Savio’s testimony at their pending settlement proceeding. Savio had already been deposed at the time of her death and had already been granted a divorce," Greenberg argued.
It’s pretty tricky stuff, the kind of thing lawyers like to argue about ad nauseum. But it’s potentially significant because, in admitting the forefeiture-by-wrongdoing hearsay based solely on the killing of Savio, the judge is essentially finding that Peterson killed Savio during Peterson’s jury trial on charges that he killed Savio.
No matter what the outcome of his appeal, Peterson’s legal troubles won’t end there. He faces pending charges of trying to hire a hit man to kill Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow, the lawyer who prosecuted Peterson.
Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at email@example.com or at 217-3551-5369.