Victory for prosecutors: Court allows hearsay statements in Peterson case

Drew Peterson is escorted out of the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Ill., after his arraignment was postponed on Friday, May 8, 2009. (Zbigniew Bzdak, Chicago Tribune)

Will County prosecutors have scored a significant victory in their case against Drew Peterson, with an appellate court granting their request to use several hearsay statements at the former Bolingbrook police officer's murder trial.
 
In a divided opinion by the Third District Appellate court, the justices ruled the trial judge cannot bar the so-called second-hand testimony because he found the statements unreliable. The Will County state's attorney's office contends the statements are crucial to their efforts to convict Peterson of the death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio.
 
The case, which has drawn national media attention, has been put on hold for nearly two years as State’s Attorney James Glasgow pushed for the statements to be declared admissible. The trial judge retired while the case was on appeal.
 
Peterson, 57, is charged with killing Savio, who was found dead in a dry bathtub in 2004. Officials initially said the death was an accidental drowning, but authorities reopened the case after his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, vanished in October 2007. He remains a suspect in her disappearance but has not been charged.

Glasgow largely has built his case around pathology reports and 13 hearsay statements that he says would allow Savio and Stacy to speak from the grave. He even pushed for a new Illinois statute -- dubbed Drew's Law -- to allow secondhand testimony at trial if the judge finds it reliable and if the bulk of evidence shows that the defendant made the witness unavailable.

Will County Judge Stephen White had sided with prosecutors in finding that the preponderance of evidence showed Peterson's wrongdoing, but he still barred the majority of hearsay statements because they did "not provide sufficient safeguards of reliability."

Glasgow argued that the courts do not need to consider the reliablity of hearsay because it's not required by common law. The ruling called Glasgow's reasoning "puzzling" even as it backed him.

"This change in the state's position is puzzling," the ruling states. "If the legislature intended to facilitate the successful prosecution of criminal defendants who intentionally prevent witnesses from testifying (as the statute’s legislative history suggests), it is unclear why it passed a statute that imposed restrictions on prosecutors that are not found in the common law."

The defense can still appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court, but it is unclear if it will do so.

"As far as I am concerned, the statements the judge left out are the less troubling," Peterson lawyer Steve Greenberg said. "Whatever the ruling is, the ruling is."