Lawyers say Drew Peterson could be released from jail during appeal over hearsay evidence

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Lawyers to seek Peterson’s release during appeal

JOLIET, Ill. — Former police officer Drew Peterson’s trial on charges of killing his third wife will be delayed and he could be released from jail while prosecutors appeal a judge’s decision to exclude evidence considered crucial to the case, attorneys said Wednesday.

Jury selection was set to begin Thursday in Peterson’s trial in the 2004 drowning death of ex-wife Kathleen Savio.

But Will County Judge Stephen White ruled Tuesday he would not allow a jury to hear some hearsay — or second hand — evidence, including statements Savio allegedly made to others. Such evidence is considered crucial to the case because prosecutors have not yet produced physical evidence linking Peterson to Savio’s death, firsthand witnesses or a confession.

State’s Attorney James Glasgow declined to outline what hearsay evidence was excluded but he pointed to a June 24 Illinois Supreme Court ruling in another case that he said shows he’s entitled to present additional hearsay evidence at Peterson’s trial. In the other case, the Supreme Court upheld the conviction of a Naperville man in the 2005 slayings of four family members and rejected his argument that hearsay statements from his sister shouldn’t have been allowed at this trial.

“I am obligated as the state’s attorney for Will County to make sure that when I come into court, I have all the evidence I can possibly garner,” he told reporters in Joliet.

Peterson has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in Savio’s death and has denied involvement in the disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, who has not been seen since October 2007.

He has been in jail since his arrest in May 2009, but the appeal could mean he will be released. Defendants have a right to a speedy trial, and Glasgow acknowledged an appeal could take months. He said Illinois law doesn’t allow a defendant to be held during a lengthy appeal unless there are “compelling reasons” to do so, and Peterson’s attorneys said they’ll seek his release.

A hearing on that matter is expected to be held Thursday.

Savio’s death originally was ruled an accident after her body was found in an empty bathtub. Her body was exhumed after Stacy Peterson disappeared, and Savio’s death was ruled a homicide.

Peterson’s attorneys said the appeal didn’t come as a surprise and they believe the case eventually will be dismissed.

“They’re telling the appellate court, we don’t have a case without this hearsay,” said Joseph Lopez, one of Peterson’s defense attorneys.

Glasgow said that wasn’t true.

“We’re ready for trial,” he said. “I filed this appeal because there is evidence I believe should be available to us.”

Hearsay evidence — statements not based on a witness’ direct knowledge — are allowed in trials under a new state law if prosecutors can prove a defendant may have killed a witness to prevent him or her from testifying. The law was so closely linked to the Peterson case that some have dubbed it “Drew’s law.”

A hearing was held earlier this year to determine what hearsay evidence a jury would be allowed to hear.

A person familiar with the case told The Associated Press that among the statements White ruled a jury can’t hear was one from Stacy Peterson’s pastor, who said she told him she’d given Peterson a false alibi the weekend of Savio’s death. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the judge’s orders have been sealed.

That person said the pastor, Neil Schori, will still be allowed to testify about other conversations with Stacy Peterson.

For example, Schori can testify Stacy Peterson told him of seeing her husband, dressed all in black, dumping his clothes and women’s clothing that did not belong to Stacy into their washing machine the night before Savio’s body was found in her bathtub, the source said.

The person also said White ruled one of Savio’s co-workers couldn’t testify. During the hearing to determine what hearsay testimony would be allowed at trial, Issam Karam said Savio told him about a night at her home when Peterson, armed with a knife, allegedly grabbed her throat and told her there was nothing she could do to protect herself from him.

White also ruled that he would allow a letter to a then-assistant state’s attorney in which Savio outlined allegations that Peterson has physically abused her, the source said. During the hearing, the former prosecutor testified that she did not remember receiving the letter.

But the appeal likely signals that the prosecution’s case could be in trouble, said Terry Sullivan, a Chicago attorney and former prosecutor who has followed the case.

“It signals to me that without the hearsay they’re in trouble,” Sullivan said. “Now it’s pretty well an admission that shows they don’t want to go to trial without that hearsay testimony. You can read whatever you want into it.”

Associated Press writer Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.

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