Judge: No mistrial in Drew Peterson murder case

August 2, 2012

DON BABWIN & MICHAEL TARM, Associated Press

A judge decided against declaring a mistrial in Drew Peterson's murder case Thursday, criticizing prosecutors for entering inadmissible evidence but concluding the former police officer still can get a fair trial.

Testimony resumed shortly after the in-court legal drama that threatened to end the high-profile trial before it had barely begun.

The ruling by Judge Edward Burmila followed several blunders by prosecutors, who are seeking to prove the 58-year-old Peterson killed his third wife, Kathleen Savio, whose body was found in a dry bathtub in 2004. He also is a suspect in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, but has never been charged in her case.

Burmila made it clear Thursday that he seriously entertained the possibility of effectively cancelling the trial. But the judge, who had wondered aloud Wednesday whether the testimony made Peterson appear menacing in jurors' eyes and undermined his shot at a fair trial, said ending the trial was unnecessary.

"The court believes that the defendant's ability to receive a fair trial is not extinguished at this time," Burmila said.

Shortly after the ruling, testimony continued with prosecutors calling a paramedic to the stand in a bid to prove Peterson staged a scene, making it look like Savio died in a bathroom accident.

Louis Oleszkiewicz said a towel visible in a later investigation photo wasn't there when he was at the home on March 1, 2004. Prosecutors have suggested Peterson placed the towel there after paramedics arrived to ensure it looked like Savio had been taking a bath.

On Wednesday, a furious Burmila admonished prosecutors after a witness began testifying about finding a .38-caliber bullet on his driveway. Thomas Pontarelli, a former neighbor of Savio's, hinted that Peterson may have planted it there to intimidate him.

Early Thursday, Burmila told jurors to disregard Pontarelli's statement about the bullet. And, in a rarity for trials, the judge signaled to jurors that the state had messed up, telling them a prosecutor had asked Pontarelli a question "she knew would elicit an inadmissible response."

Defense attorney Steve Greenberg said Thursday that prosecutors are bent on proving Savio, neighbors and others were afraid of Peterson as backhanded way to try to prove he committed murder.

"So far we have a jury that thinks that everyone is afraid of Mr. Peterson. How is that fair to Mr. Peterson?" Greenberg said in arguing for a mistrial. "What evidence do they have that he did anything wrong. (They have) nothing. So what they want is to make him look like a bad guy."

Judge Burmila appeared to sympathize with that argument while explaining his decision, saying "There is no doubt that the victim's state of mind (that she might have been fearful) is immaterial" and that only facts supporting the murder allegation are relevant.

Prosecutor Chris Koch said before the judge's ruling that Pontarelli had mentioned the bullet of his own accord, not at prosecutors' urging.

"To sit here now and say that was somehow intentionally done ... is absolutely absurd," he said.

Peterson, who was a police officer in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in Savio's death. He also has said he wasn't responsible for his fourth wife's disappearance.

The mistrial request was the second in as many days in the case that has been beset by botched investigations and an absence of physical evidence.