Illinois' murder trial of the century

Drew Peterson's Attorneys Begin Defense

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Drew Peterson's attorneys on Monday paraded six witnesses in rapid order in their attempt to prove the defendant didn't kill his third wife, Kathleen Savio.

    By contrast, Will County prosecutors on some days put forth just a single witness throughout their four weeks of testimony. They rested Monday, ending with the reading of a heavily-redacted letter Savio wrote in which she expressed fear her ex-husband, a former Bolingrook police sergeant, would kill her.

    Peterson, now 58, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in Savio's 2004 death. He was only charged after his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, went missing in 2007.

    The defense's first witness was Mary Pontarelli, a neighbor and close friend of Savio's who also had testified for the state about finding Savio's body. Pontarelli conceded Monday she never saw Peterson strike Savio or even raise his voice at her.

    "He was very respectful ... a good neighbor," she said. "He's a funny guy, he makes jokes about things -- not in a mean way."

    She also told jurors Savio would have fought back if attacked. The defense has said the absence of defensive wounds on Savio bolstered their contention she died accidentally.

    "She's tough," Pontarelli agreed. "She wouldn't let someone hit her without her hitting back."

    Rob Sud, a Bolingbrook police officer who went to Savio's house the night her body was found, also testified. He said he saw nothing in house to raise his suspicions that her death was anything but accidental.

    "There wasn't some grand conspiracy to cover something up was there?" defense attorney Steve Greenberg asked, though a judge sustained an objection before the officer could answer.

    Joseph Steadman, a former insurance adjuster who'd previously testified for the prosecution, also took the stand. He explained that the life insurance policy on Savio was initially taken out in September 1997, with Peterson listed as beneficiary. Years later, in April 2002, Savio switched the beneficiaries to her sons as part of her divorce from Peterson.

    Upon her death, Steadman said Peterson and Savio's sister both tried to make a claim on the policy. Steadman explained that since the boys were minors, they couldn't receive the benefits directly. Peterson was listed as their guardian.

    "If Mr. Peterson murdered her, he wouldn't be eligible to be the guardian," he said.

    That claim was ultimately paid to Peterson, he said.

    From the witness stand, Illinois State Police Master Sgt. Bryan Falat told jurors that Peterson never showed any signs that he'd been in a struggle or was injured, nor could he recall ever hearing that Savio slept with a knife under her bed, as jurors have previously heard.

    FBI Special Agent Joseph Basile testified -- sounding as though he didn't want to appear as a witness -- matter-of-factly about an interview he'd conducted with Bolingbrook officer James Coughlin. Coughlin testified for the prosecution that Peterson once told him life would be easier if Savio were dead.

    Basile wrote about that remark in his report, but there was a bit of haggling between prosecutors and defense attorneys over whether the words "easier if she were dead" were an actual quote Coughlin said or whether Basile paraphrased him.

    Basile said it was "something to that effect" and "to the best of my recollection."

    Monday's final defense witness was Illinois State Police special agent Darrin Devine. He interviewed Savio friend Kristin Anderson upon getting involved in the death investigation in June 2008. He initially said Anderson made no mention of Savio sleeping with a knife under bed. Under cross examination, and upon being a shown of his report, his memory was apparently refreshed and said Anderson did, in fact, mention the knife under the mattress.

    Savio, 40, was found dead in a bathtub at her home with a gash on the back of her head in March 2004. Her death was initially deemed accidental but reclassified a homicide after Stacy Peterson disappeared.

    After prosecutors rested Monday morning, Judge Edward Burmila rejected a defense request that he acquit Peterson even before the case goes to jurors. To grant a directed verdict -- which are commonly asked for, but rarely granted -- he would have had to conclude that the state fell so far short of proving their case there was no need to go on.

    If Peterson is convicted, he faces a maximum 60-year prison term.

    NBC Chicago has reporters in the Will County Courthouse for the trial. During proceedings, follow along with our Drew Peterson Trial Live Blog or follow @bjlutz on Twitter.