Judge Rebuffs Peterson Prosecutors on Hearsay - NBC Chicago

Illinois' murder trial of the century

Judge Rebuffs Peterson Prosecutors on Hearsay

Court rules on what evidence should or shouldn't be admitted when former police sergeant's trial gets under way next week



    Court rules on what evidence should or shouldn't be admitted when former police sergeant's trial gets under way next week. Charlie Wojciechowski reports. (Published Wednesday, July 18, 2012)

    The judge overseeing the Drew Peterson murder trial that starts next week refused a request by prosecutors Wednesday for him to immediately rule on whether he will admit certain hearsay statements -- appearing to leave open the possibility of barring at least some of that evidence, which could be central to their case.

    The issue arose at the last scheduled pretrial hearing before the selection of jurors who will decide the fate of the former suburban Chicago police officer accused of murdering his third of four wives, Kathleen Savio, in 2004.

    It isn't known what specific statements were the points of contention at Wednesday's hearing because the judge cleared the courtroom before discussing the question for several hours with the two sides in the morning.

    But when spectators were allowed back, one assistant state's attorney continued to press Will County Judge Edward Burmila to rule on the admissibility of hearsay statements before the trial starts Monday -- and the judge grew angry.

    "You don't tell me how to rule," he said, then told her to sit down. He appeared to leave open the possibility of ruling out at least some of the hearsay evidence -- which could be a major blow to prosecutors.

    Prosecutors have not talked in advance of the trial about any physical evidence linking Peterson to the crime, and so the trial's outcome may hinge on statements Savio and Peterson allegedly made to others.

    The sooner prosecutors know what hearsay they can or can't present, the sooner they can adjust their strategy. But the defense said the judge should rule during testimony so he can better understand the context of the statements.

    Peterson, wearing prison garb and orange slippers, appeared relaxed in court, chatting with a sheriff's deputy in the morning and joking with his attorneys. He later looked on intently as attorneys discussed evidence.

    The former Bolingbrook police sergeant is also a suspect in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, who is presumed dead. Drew Peterson has denied involvement in either death.

    Savio's body was found in a dry bathtub, and her death was initially declared an accident. Peterson was only charged after Stacy Peterson disappeared and Savio's body was exhumed.

    Prosecutors declined comment immediately after Wednesday's hearing. But the defense sounded upbeat.

    "It was a very good day with a capital 'V,'" said Peterson's lead attorney, Joel Brodsky, citing the judge's rulings and treatment of the hearsay issue.

    Hearsay is typically barred at trials. But thanks to a state law adopted in response to the Peterson case, Illinois judges can allow it in murder trials if prosecutors prove a defendant might have killed a witness to prevent him or her from testifying.

    Higher courts have ruled that the Peterson trial judge can consider admitting hearsay evidence. Because of the higher court ruling, Burmila can't bar the statements on grounds they are hearsay -- but could on grounds they aren't relevant.

    In other rulings Wednesday, the judge sided with prosecutors, telling them, for instance, that they can display a three-dimensional model of Savio's body to jurors that indicates bruises and other wounds more starkly than autopsy photographs.

    Burmila also ruled prosecutors could broach the subject of how Savio typically wore her hair when she bathed — a point that could be relevant to how her body was found in a dry bathtub and whether the scene was staged to make the death look like an accident.

    But the judge also ruled in favor of the defense on several motions, including prohibiting evidence that Peterson had wiretapped Savio's home, which prosecutors had said would help show jurors he was hatching a plan to eventually kill her.