Pre­trial trial puts Peter­son on hot seat

Does hearsay tes­ti­mony show he’s a kid­der — or a killer?

Chicago Sun-Times - - News -

Drove down to Joliet on Wed­nes­day to see Drew Peter­son, a first for me, so first things first. To bor­row a cliche, he’s not as big as he looks on tele­vi­sion — or in those pho­tos where he’s shown stand­ing along­side his miss­ing wife, Stacy.

I’d put him at 6 feet tall, not nearly as im­pos­ing as I’d imag­ined.

What’s big, though, is his head. The guy has a huge head, large enough I’d guess to ac­com­mo­date a larger-than-nor­mal brain. See­ing that head re­ally makes you think about what goes on in­side it — in light of the ac­cu­sa­tions that Peter­son got away with killing one wife and mak­ing an­other dis­ap­pear.

If what Will County pros­e­cu­tors want us to be­lieve about Peter­son is true, and I’m not say­ing it is, some sci­en­tist ought to get a look at that brain some­day. As it is, they’ve still got a long way to go to prove their case, no mat­ter how much we might be­lieve he’s guilty as we fol­low along from home.

The odd­est tes­ti­mony Wed­nes­day came from one of Peter­son’s for­mer fel­low of­fi­cers with the Bol­ing­brook po­lice, who was asked by de­fense at­tor­ney Joel Brodsky to give ex­am­ples of why Peter­son had a rep­u­ta­tion as a prac­ti­cal jokester.

“He put a live goose in the squad car one time,” re­called Richard Treece, who spent 15 years work­ing with Peter­son.

On an­other oc­ca­sion, Treece said, Peter­son bought a lot­tery ticket with the winning num­bers from the pre­vi­ous day’s draw­ing, then put it in the of­fice pile with the tick­ets for the ear­lier draw­ing, which had yet to be checked, caus­ing every­one to think they’d won the jack­pot. That Drew. What a card. Brodsky elicited the tes­ti­mony to blunt the im­pact of many of Peter­son’s al­leged state­ments, such as his sup­pos­edly telling an ear­lier wit­ness his po­lice train­ing would en­able him to kill some­one and get away with it. The idea is that Drew is al­ways kid­ding around, and you can never take what he says se­ri­ously.

On Wed­nes­day, a for­mer Peter­son girl­friend — a bar­tender he dated while mar­ried to third wife Kathy Savio, the one he’s ac­cused of killing — tes­ti­fied he once left her be­hind at a friend’s house, telling her he was part of a “street death squad” and had some busi­ness to take care of.

Later, the po­lice of­fi­cer, Treece, re­counted a 2004 con­ver­sa­tion in a court­house hall­way where Peter­son, an­gered by the sight of his di­vorce lawyer laugh­ing it up with Savio’s lawyer, said “he’d be bet­ter off if that bitch was dead.”

You can see why there would be con­fu­sion about when Peter­son is to be taken se­ri­ously.

They’re in the sec­ond week of a pre­trial hear­ing to de­ter­mine what hearsay ev­i­dence pros­e­cu­tors will be al­lowed to use against Peter­son at the real trial — the hear­ing was re­quired un­der a new state law specif­i­cally de­signed to nail him.

I’ve gotta say I’ve been du­bi­ous about that law from the start.

It’s a danger­ous busi­ness to make a law to go af­ter a sin­gle per­son, and there’s no deny­ing that’s what hap­pened here with “Drew’s Law,” even though it will be in place to ap­ply to oth­ers go­ing for­ward.

I had ex­pected, there­fore, that the de­fense bar would be up in arms over al­low­ing this type of hearsay ev­i­dence, but that’s ap­par­ently not the case.

We’ve al­ways had ex­cep­tions to the rule that bars hearsay ev­i­dence, I was re­minded, and it only makes com­mon sense that such an ex­cep­tion should ap­ply in a case where it can be proved that a de­fen­dant killed a wit­ness to keep that per­son from tes­ti­fy­ing. Em­pha­sis on proved.

The rules against hearsay are de­signed to pro­tect the con­sti­tu­tional right of the ac­cused to con­front their ac­cusers, which a de­fen­dant can’t re­ally do if the ac­cuser is dead. But if you’re re­spon­si­ble for killing that per­son, you can see that you shouldn’t be able to com­plain that you can’t cros­sex­am­ine the vic­tim.

The lawyers call this “for­fei­ture by wrong­do­ing,” and the U.S. Supreme Court has al­ready up­held the con­cept in a Cal­i­for­nia case.

But the de­fense com­mu­nity is up­set with Drew’s Law for an­other rea­son — that it re­quires this hear­ing, which is re­ally a full­blown “pre­trial trial.”

At the end of this hear­ing, Judge Stephen White will have to rule whether the “pre­pon­der­ance of the ev­i­dence” shows Peter­son killed some­body to keep that per­son from tes­ti­fy­ing. If he agrees that it does, pros­e­cu­tors could use the hearsay ev­i­dence in a trial at which they then would have to prove that Peter­son is guilty by meet­ing the higher thresh­old of “be­yond a rea­son­able doubt.”

The ques­tion is how Peter­son gets a fair trial af­ter White has made that rul­ing, and how White im­par­tially pre­sides over that trial. Some be­lieve this will open the door for an ap­peal.

Peter­son’s goose isn’t cooked just yet.

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