It’s finally here. Eight years after Kathleen Savio mysteriously drowned in her bathtub, her ex-husband, Drew Peterson, is being tried for her death. It’s been a long road. Savio’s death wasn’t reclassified as a homicide for three years, not until suspicions arose after Peterson’s fourth wife went missing. It then took another two years for Peterson to be charged with first-degree murder in Savio’s death. And since his 2009 arrest the prosecution, defense & the courts have fought over the admissibility of hearsay evidence, the basis for the prosecution’s case. Yet, after all of that anticipation, I fear those who’ve followed this case closely will be disappointed by the outcome. Drew Peterson will likely be found not guilty of first-degree murder.
On the surface, Peterson seems like the type of defendant any prosecution could easily go after. He’s egotistical, shows no emotion over the death and disappearance of his wives and is a serial cheater who likes to date women much younger than he is. Yet, similar to John Edward’s defense, Peterson’s attorney will argue while his client’s actions may be morally reprehensible, they aren’t criminal.
Peterson has a clear motive, the prosecution will argue. He was fighting with Savio for custody of their children. He wanted to move on and start a new life with his fourth wife, Stacy. Savio fought with him, called the police on him and she was just becoming too much of a headache to deal with, the prosecution will say. It’s simple for them to explain motive. Yet, that’s just one small piece of a much larger puzzle and, unfortunately, many of the pieces needed to prove he’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt are missing.
Let’s start with the simple facts. Kathleen Savio was found dead in an empty bathtub on March 1st, 2004. Her bloodied hair was covering her face as she lay turned in a semi-fetal position with a laceration to the back of her head and bruises on her body. The autopsy includes a comment that reads, “the laceration to posterior scalp may have been related to a fall in which she struck her head,” and her death is ruled a drowning. Strike one against the prosecution.
Yes, a second autopsy conducted three years after her death reclassified it as a homicide. However, Peterson’s attorney, Joel Brodsky, is prepared to explain away every contradiction that led to the reclassification. Brodsky’s 2008 interview for the book Drew Peterson Exposed sets up very well what will likely be his game plan. He’ll claim, with the help of expert testimony, the autopsy notation that she had “mild mitral valve thickening” is consistent with people who lose consciousness. He’ll claim after losing consciousness, she struck her head on the back of the bathtub, thus the laceration to her scalp. He’ll claim her bruises were faint and old, typical of a woman with an active lifestyle, like Savio, and that they could’ve come from working out at the gym. He’ll claim Savio was known as a fighter and question why there’s no sign she fought back, no skin under the fingernails or defensive wounds. He’ll say the bathtub was empty because it drains on its own within 4-6 hours. As he tells author Derek Armstrong, “you can’t even prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there was a homicide. You can’t even get to square one.”
Brodsky’s defense could play out very much like Jose Baez’s defense in the Casey Anthony case; you can’t even prove there was a murder, let alone that the defendant was the murderer. Just as Baez created an elaborate story, claiming Caylee drowned, Brodsky will do the same; just enough of a story necessary to create doubt in the jurors’ minds.
Creating a plausible explanation for how a healthy 40-year-old woman accidentally drowns is just one part of Brodsky’s defense. The other is to methodically pick apart at the prosecution’s evidence, which is incredibly weak to begin with. There is no physical evidence tying Peterson to the alleged crime, so the prosecution’s case relies almost entirely on 14 different hearsay statements made by Savio and Stacy Peterson. While an Illinois appellate court has ruled that those statements are admissible even though the two women are not here to be cross-examined, Brodsky is prepared to cast doubt on each of these alleged conversations.
Take for instance Stacy’s pastor, Reverend Neil Schori, who claims she told him that on the day Savio’s body was found, Peterson returned home dressed completely in black, carrying a bag of women’s clothing and that he coached her to provide his alibi. Brodsky is going to have a field day questioning Schori on the stand about why he didn’t alert the police or take any measures to try to protect Stacy. As he tells Armstrong in Drew Peterson Exposed, “it’s ridiculous to ask us to believe he allowed her to go home after that kind of a story. Any reasonable person would say, ‘sit right there, I’m calling the cops. You’re not safe! Is your husband home right now? No? Lets go get your kids and get you to a shelter.’ But no, he lets her go home. Right.”
With each and every hearsay witness, Brodsky will question why, if these women claimed they were scared for their lives, these friends & relatives didn’t do more. He’ll ask Savio’s divorce attorney, Harry Smith, why if she told him she feared Peterson would kill her and make it look like an accident he didn’t do more to protect her or try harder to alert the police after her death. He’ll question the motives of Savio’s sister, Anna Doman, who claims Savio said Peterson wanted to kill her and to care for her children if she died. He’ll try to establish the fact that her family hated Drew Peterson and resented that Savio married him against her father’s wishes.
It’s also important to note that the fact that Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy, disappeared and is still missing will not be something jurors can consider when deciding their verdict. In fact, the judge will be very strict on what limited ways Stacy’s story can come into play in the courtroom, since otherwise it’s grounds for an appeal. The jury is there to hear only the case of Savio, not Stacy, so without that larger picture, they are limited in the evidence they can consider.
Although much of the media has basically already convicted him, painting Drew Peterson as a Lifetime movie-worthy evil villain who killed two wives, remember the court of public opinion and the criminal court have two very different standards. Despite strong hearsay evidence, given the lack of physical evidence and a strong defense, I believe the standard of beyond a reasonable doubt is just not one these jurors will be able to meet.