Opening statements in Drew Peterson trial set for Tuesday

The murder trial of the ex-police officer gets underway in a courtroom outside Chicago.

Will County, Ill. Sheriff's Dept./AP/File
In this file booking photo provided by the Will County Sheriff's office in Joliet, Ill., former Bolingbrook, Ill., police sergeant Drew Peterson is shown. Opening statements are slated for Tuesday, July 31, in the much-anticipated trial of the 58-year-old Peterson, who was charged with the 2004 murder of his 40-year-old fourth wife, Kathleen Savio.

The saga of Drew Peterson and his ill-fated wives has drawn widespread attention outside the courtroom, and now the murder case against the ex-police officer finally goes to trial Tuesday with opening statements and testimony from the first witnesses.

The 58-year-old Peterson's day in court comes nearly a decade after his third wife was found dead in a bathtub, and five years after his much younger fourth wife vanished without a trace.

The real-life drama inspired a TV movie and a national spotlight was put on the case, with speculation about whether Peterson used his law-enforcement expertise in a bid to get away with the 2004 murder of Kathleen Savio, 40, and to make 23-year-old Stacy Peterson disappear in 2007.

Those who have observed major criminal trials for years say the outcome of this one is especially hard to predict.

"I think it will be a close case," said Kathleen Zellner, a leading Chicago-area defense attorney.

Tuesday's openings in Joliet pit the dry but dogged James Glasgow, Will County's state's attorney, against flamboyant defense lawyer Joel Brodsky, both of whom have staked at least part of their reputations on the final result.

Peterson's attorney says he will tell jurors, who include a part-time poet, a letter carrier and a research technician whose favorite TV show is "Criminal Minds," the life story of his client and Savio.

Peterson, a former police sergeant in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, was charged with first-degree murder in Savio's death only after Stacy Peterson went missing. He is a suspect in her disappearance but hasn't been charged.

"I'll tell a story from the beginning to the end so they can understand what's going on," Brodsky said about his planned Tuesday opening. "Until now, everything has been told just in slices."

The defense has described Savio's death as a tragic accident, and they have said Stacy Peterson, whose body has never been found, may have run off with another man.

Glasgow may face the greater challenge.

A botched initial investigation into Savio's death left prosecutors with scant to no physical evidence, forcing them to rely heavily on hearsay evidence — statements not heard directly by a witness — which is normally barred at trials.

Glasgow has said previously that Savio and Stacy Peterson will effectively speak to jurors through witnesses who can describe how Drew Peterson allegedly told his wives he could murder them and make it look like an accident.

But Judge Edward Burmila has said he would decide what hearsay statements to admit only as testimony proceeds, so Glasgow will have to decide whether to risk mentioning statements to jurors that the judge might later prohibit.

"The last thing you want to do is make an opening about what jurors will hear, telling them the case hinges on what they'll hear — and then they don't hear it," Chicago-based attorney Michael Helfand said.

By presenting what they regard as overwhelming hearsay and circumstantial evidence, Zellner said prosecutors will want to show jurors the only possible explanation for Savio's death is that Peterson killed her.

In the case of Stacy Peterson, Burmila has warned prosecutors they can't tell jurors Drew Peterson is responsible for her disappearance or refer to authorities' belief that she is dead.

Attorneys on both sides will have to find the right terminology in talking about the missing fourth wife, said Brodsky, who added that the sides might be able to use the awkward phrase "she is no longer available."

Prosecutors say Peterson killed Savio because he feared their pending divorce settlement would wipe him out financially. And they believe he killed Stacy, in part, because she knew about Savio's death.

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