Friend: Ex-wife Said Peterson Grabbed Her by Neck

Mary Parks studied nursing with Drew Peterson's third wife, Kathleen Savio

Drew Peterson's third wife told a friend a year before she was found dead that the former suburban Chicago police officer once broke into her home, grabbed her roughly by the neck and asked a threatening question, the friend testified Thursday.

Peterson, 58, has pleaded not guilty to murder in the 2004 death of Kathleen Savio. He was only charged after his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, vanished in 2007. He is a suspect in that case, but has not been charged.

Mary Parks, who studied nursing with Peterson's third wife, told jurors that around Thanksgiving of 2003, Savio told her Peterson had entered her suburban Chicago home, grabbed her neck as she came downstairs and pinned her down.

"She said that her husband said, "'Why don't you just die?'" Parks told jurors, her voice quivering.

Parks testified that Savio also partly unzipped a top she was wearing to show dark red bruises on her neck, saying they were a result of Peterson's attack.

At one point during the day's testimony, Parks began to cry and the judge asked jurors to leave the room while she regained her composure.

The hearsay testimony, which is not based on a witness' direct knowledge, is critical because police who investigated when Savio was found dead in a dry bathtub quickly decided it was an accident and did not collect any physical evidence. Illinois has adopted a law — dubbed "Drew's Law" -- that allows hearsay evidence in rare circumstances.

Parks said she and Savio spoke again a month later.

"Kathy told me that her husband ... had told her that he could kill her and make her disappear," she said.

Peterson, who has looked on intently during testimony, beamed when his and Savio's son, Kristopher, walked into court and sat behind him to chat during a break. The 18-year-old and other Peterson children are on a witness list and cannot sit in on testimony.

During the cross-examination of Parks, defense attorney Steve Greenberg suggested Savio may have been paranoid, and that her descriptions of clashes with Peterson may have been exaggerated to elicit sympathy from Parks.

But Savio's friend stood her ground.

"Everything that she told me, I had no reason to doubt," Parks said.

Before the trial began last week, Judge James Burmila left open the possibility he could prohibit most or even all of the hearsay statements at the heart of the state's case against Peterson. But in recent days, he has permitted several such statements, potentially boosting the state's chances of a conviction.

On Thursday, he refused a defense request to bar Parks' testimony.

In frequently contentious exchanges Thursday, Greenberg also said Parks' accounts of what Savio told her have been inconsistent. The defense attorney even asked Parks why she kept looking to her left at jurors as she answered questions.

Parks shot back, "Is it inappropriate for me to do that?" After Parks asked the attorney another question, Burmila admonished her, saying "Don't fence with counsel, ma'am."

Legal arguments surrounding the use of hearsay have slowed the trial. Jurors are frequently asked to leave the courtroom so attorneys can argue over the admissibility of hearsay statements.

The defense argues the hearsay witnesses aren't reliable.

"In order for them to clear up their testimony you have to cast the blame on somebody else. So I guess there's this giant conspiracy between the FBI and the Illinois State Police to protect Drew Peterson by not putting things in their report," attorney Joe Lopez said outside the courthouse.

But Savio's friend, Pam Bosco, said that while the defense can "keep punching away at these witnesses," their statments "never change."

"If [Drew Peterson is] not quivvering in his shoes, he should be," said Bosco.

If Peterson is convicted, defense attorneys have said they could appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds that the hearsay should have been barred.

As the proceedings began Thursday, Burmila said he had received a letter from an Illinois inmate who claims to have information about a link between Peterson and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

The judge said the unnamed inmate asked him to follow up with him if he wants more details.

"I won't be communicating with him," Burmila said.

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 gmarshall_jr on Twitter.

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