Jury selection is to begin Monday in Drew Peterson's long-delayed murder trial, in which prosecutors want the former suburban Chicago police officer's wives to effectively testify from their graves about his threats to kill them.
Peterson, 58, is charged with killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio, in 2004. Her body was found in a dry bathtub in her home, her hair soaked with blood. The ex-Bolingbrook police sergeant also is a suspect in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, although he has not been charged.
The jurors are also likely to hear statements that the wives allegedly made to friends and relatives about threats Peterson made. Such hearsay is usually barred, but an appellate court ruled jurors can hear the statements.
Will County Judge Edward Burmila will vet would-be jurors starting Monday. A 200-person jury has been waiting three years for a trial to get under way. It was put off because of appellate court battles over the hearsay statements.
"I've never heard of anything comparable to this — a jury pool waiting around for so long knowing what case they're going to be in and the reliance on hearsay," said Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago defense lawyer with no link to the case.
Peterson was nervous but confident as he prepared to stand trial, said his lead attorney, Joel Brodsky.
"It's probably the most important event in his life," the attorney said. "(But) Kathleen died in a household accident and there's nothing more than that."
In fact, jurors are likely to hear from a parade of pathologists who will dispute each others' conclusions about how the 40-year-old Savio died. They will hear about her death being ruled an accident, her body being exhumed after 23-year-old Stacy Peterson's disappearance and the autopsy after which her cause of death was changed from accidental to homicide — and the continued dispute over those findings.
The legal saga surrounding Peterson and whether he used his status as a police officer to try to get away with murder has attracted national attention. Rob Lowe portrayed Peterson in a 2011 TV movie, "Drew Peterson: Untouchable."
Vetting would-be jurors typically takes a few days, but extra time is sometimes required in high-profile cases to weed out those who come in with well-formed opinions. Opening statements at Peterson's trial in Joliet are slated for next Tuesday.
The defense raised concerns that some prospective jurors may have violated orders to avoid all news about Peterson. Among the questions in the 25-page questionnaire jurors filled out was whether or not they saw the TV movie, as well as what kind of newspapers they read, Brodsky, said Monday outside the courthouse.
Pissetzky wonders if those in the jury pool succumbed to temptations to peek at the news or search online about the case.
"It's like you tell a kid, 'Now, don't you eat that pie over there,'" he said. "What are they going to do? Eat the pie!"
One question that looms over the trial is how much Peterson's personality will influence the jury. Before his arrest, Peterson was often seen joking about a "Win A Date With Drew" contest, his missing wife's menstrual cycle and other topics that were widely seen as inappropriate.
Brodsky has said the three years that Peterson has been in jail and largely out of the public eye might help him because the memories of his behavior have faded somewhat.
On Monday, one of Peterson's other attorneys, Steve Greenberg, said he didn't think Peterson's likeability will be an issue.
"Most people we represent are not likable. ... And some people don't like Drew," he said. "But if 12 people want to convict him because they don't like him, then God help this country."
An appellate court ruled this year that jurors can hear witnesses say Savio and Stacy Peterson told them Peterson threatened them. There's apparently no physical evidence, so the hearsay is the heart of prosecutors' case.
At a 2010 hearing to determine what hearsay a jury could hear, dozens of witnesses testified that Savio told them she feared Peterson would kill her and make it look like an accident.
Peterson, jailed since his 2009 arrest, pleaded not guilty. His attorneys say Savio's death was an accident and that Stacy Peterson — 30 years younger than Drew Peterson — ran off with another man and is alive. Authorities have said they believe she is dead, although her body has never been found.