Peterson trial focuses on botched investigation

August 7, 2012

Michael Tarm, Associated Press

The spotlight at Drew Peterson's murder trial focused Tuesday on the bungled investigation that followed the discovery of his third wife's body, as prosecutors sought to explain why there is no physical evidence linking the former police officer to her death.

The 58-year-old Peterson was charged in Kathleen Savio's 2004 death only after his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, went missing in 2007. Savio's body was then exhumed and her death reclassified from an accident to a homicide.

Among those to take the stand Tuesday was a deputy coroner who described arriving at Savio's home and finding investigators already drawing conclusions even though Savio's corpse was still sprawled in her dry bathtub — her hair soaked with blood.

He told jurors he did not follow what he called "suspicious-death protocols" — which would have required Savio's body to be handled in a way that ensured evidence was preserved — because investigators indicated there was no need.

"I asked ... if they thought there was something wrong here, and they stated, 'No,'" Michael VanOver told jurors.

Prosecutors usually herald investigators during murder trials, but not in this case. Instead, they are working to show the investigation was shoddy and lay the groundwork for the admission of circumstantial evidence and normally prohibited hearsay.

And Peterson's attorneys have defended the investigation as perfectly adequate, suggesting the reason there is no physical evidence is because there was no crime.

VanOver testified that a lack of soap scum along the inside of the bathtub was among the things that made him suspicious. He also said the position of the body in the tub didn't suggest Savio had fallen and bottles lined along the tub had not toppled over, which he said he would have expected if someone had taken a fatal fall.

But he admitted under cross-examination that he didn't express his concerns to investigators or other authorities.

"You didn't tell anyone you thought it was a homicide, right?" defense attorney Darryl Goldberg pressed him.

"No, I did not," VanOver said flatly.

Later Tuesday, a crime-scene investigator, Robert Deel, told jurors he walked around the inside and outside of Savio's house but saw no signs of a forced entry. He also said there was nothing pushed or broken inside that might indicate a struggle.

"I was not thinking it was a homicide at that time," Deel said.

Out of earshot of jurors, defense attorney Steve Greenberg complained prosecutors were trying to send a message to jurors that, if only investigators had done a better job, they would surely have found evidence proving his client committed murder.

"But their (investigators') failure to find something doesn't lead to the conclusion ... that Mr. Peterson committed a crime," Greenberg said.

Judge Edward Burmila declined to bar prosecutors from dwelling on the investigation, but he said he wouldn't let them suggest to jurors that there must have been evidence there that wasn't collected but would have proven Peterson's guilt.

Others expected to testify Tuesday include the lead investigator in Savio's death, retired State Police Sgt. Patrick Collins. He conceded at a 2010 hearing on hearsay evidence that investigators weren't as thorough as they could have been. He believed Savio's death was an accident from almost the minute he stepped into her house, and not a single fingerprint, strand of hair or blood sample was ever collected.

That means prosecutors have been forced to rely on normally barred hearsay, namely comments Savio and Stacey Peterson made to others, which poses a major hurdle in getting a conviction.

Questions have also been raised about whether investigators rallied to protect a fellow officer. Peterson, a Bolingbrook police sergeant at the time, was even allowed to be present when investigators interviewed Stacy Peterson after Savio's death.