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Could DuPage County murder case help Drew Peterson prosecutors?
By Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff

Drew Peterson

 

Eric Hanson

 

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Published: 7/1/2010 7:04 PM | Updated: 7/1/2010 9:30 PM

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Prosecutors in the Drew Peterson trial are seeking an 11th-hour appeal regarding barred hearsay statements in light of a recent Illinois Supreme Court ruling for a condemned Naperville man who killed his family.

Last Thursday, justices upheld Eric Hanson's conviction and death sentence for the September 2005 slayings of his parents, middle sister and her husband.

Hanson raised several issues on appeal, including that the DuPage County judge erred in allowing testimony from his oldest sister, Jennifer Williams. Williams testified their slain sibling, Kate, told her six weeks before being fatally bludgeoned that Eric threatened to kill her if she ratted him out for stealing from their parents.

In its unanimous June 24 decision, the high court rejected Hanson's argument that the hearsay statement is not reliable enough to be allowed under a long standing common law doctrine that says a criminal defendant forfeits the right to confront the accuser if that witness is unavailable due to the defendant's wrongdoing.

Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow also wrote a recent state law regarding hearsay evidence in murder cases.

Peterson, 56, is accused of killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio, in the former couple's Bolingbrook home in 2004. Her death was ruled an accidental bathtub drowning, but authorities reopened the investigation after the former Bolingbrook police sergeant's fourth wife, Stacy, vanished in October 2007.

In light of the recent Illinois Supreme Court opinion regarding Hanson, Glasgow is expected Friday morning to ask Judge Stephen White to reconsider his written sealed ruling barring the majority of more than a dozen hearsay statements involving both Savio and Stacy Peterson that prosecutors had hoped to use as evidence.

For example, White barred Stacy's pastor, Neil Schori, from testifying that she admitted in a counseling session to providing Drew Peterson with a false alibi the weekend Savio died. Schori still will be allowed to take the stand, but his testimony will be limited.

The judge also barred Stacy Peterson's similar confession to her friend Scott Rossetto. And White did not allow testimony from Peterson's stepbrother, who said he helped Drew move a heavy blue barrel from the home the weekend Stacy vanished.

DuPage State's Attorney Joseph Birkett confirmed he and Glasgow discussed the high court's Hanson opinion and how it may favorably impact the Peterson case for the prosecution.

"The court said reliability hearings aren't necessary for nontestimonial statements," Birkett said. "The defendant forfeited that right by killing the victim."

Attorney Joel Brodsky, who leads the Peterson defense team, said the two murder cases are dissimilar. He said the forfeiture doctrine applies criminally, not civilly, and much of the hearsay statements in Peterson came from the latter, such as in divorce proceedings.

"I don't think it affects the Drew Peterson situation in any way, shape or form," Brodsky said of Hanson. "Judge White is familiar with the law. The motion will be denied."

If White doesn't budge, prosecutors may choose to file a direct appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, which would delay the start of the trial. Brodsky said he doubts that will happen since Peterson would have to be let out of jail while the issue is pending.

Jury selection in Peterson's murder trial begins July 9.

Besides the Hanson issue, White also will hear arguments regarding the defense's request to bar noted pathologist Dr. Michael Baden from testifying for the prosecution. Baden performed a private autopsy after Savio's body was exhumed, with the assistance of former Fox News Channel producer Steph Watts, whose role in the proceeding is being questioned.

Watts, who lives in Pennsylvania, will be called to testify Friday.