JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — A judge said Thursday that he believed Drew Peterson could receive a fair trial in his murder case, but not before chiding prosecutors for entering inadmissible evidence and criticizing them in front of jurors.
Testimony resumed with paramedics and a locksmith shortly after the resolution of the in-court legal drama, which came close to ending the high-profile trial before it had barely begun.
The 58-year-old Peterson is charged with first-degree murder in the 2004 death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio, whose body was found in a dry bathtub. He also is a suspect in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, but has never been charged in her case.
On Thursday morning, Judge Edward Burmila instructed jurors that a prosecutor had asked a question Wednesday "she knew would elicit an inadmissible response." Thomas Pontarelli testified Wednesday that he found a bullet in his driveway and believed Peterson put it there to intimidate him.
But Burmila, who angrily told prosecutors Wednesday he was leaning toward wiping out everything Pontarelli said, backed off.
"The court believes that the defendant's ability to receive a fair trial is not extinguished at this time," Burmila told attorneys before bringing the jury back and instructing them disregard the last few minutes of Pontarelli's testimony.
It was the latest legal hurdle of many in a saga that stretches back nearly a decade. A botched initial investigation left prosecutors with no physical evidence. Savio's cause of death wasn't changed from accidental to a homicide until her body was exhumed in 2007. And prosecutors have been forced them to rely heavily on normally prohibited hearsay.
The lack of evidence, Peterson's attorneys contended, is why they believe prosecutors have knowingly tried to get inadmissible evidence before the jury. It's an effort to impress that Peterson is feared by his neighbors, they say, which is a backhanded way of trying to prove he committed murder.
"Everyone is afraid of Mr. Peterson so he must have done this (committed murder)," Greenberg said.
Burmila appeared to sympathize with that argument, and his comments indicated that he would not allow prosecutors to broach the topic.
"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, he said.
With Thursday morning's drama concluded, the proceedings resembled a routine murder trial, with a paramedic testifying about being called to Savio's house the night her body was found.
Prosecutors, who contend that Peterson staged the scene to make it look like an accidental death, walked paramedic Louis Oleszkiewicz through what he saw that night.
"This towel — right there — was not there that evening," he said, as he looked at a photograph taken of the bathroom. Prosecutors have suggested Peterson put the towel there to make it look like Savio had been taking a bath.
A locksmith who opened the door of Savio's home that night at Drew Peterson's request also took the stand. He said he left the scene after he heard a scream — which was the sound of a neighbor who had just discovered Savio's body inside.
"I got the heck out of Dodge," he said. "I just sorta figured — it wasn't good. ... You don't want the locksmith around, trust me."
Peterson, who was a police officer in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, has pleaded not guilty. He also has said he wasn't responsible for his fourth wife's disappearance.
Michael Tarm can be reached at www.twitter.com/mtarm