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After sometimes rough first week, Drew Peterson prosecutors look to rebound

Drew Peters(left) is trial death his third wife Kathleen Savio.

Drew Peterson (left) is on trial in the death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio.

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Updated: September 6, 2012 6:25AM

Drew Peterson’s murder trial opened with two missteps that prompted requests for a mistrial and harsh words from Judge Edward Burmila.

After that, Will County prosecutors had nowhere to go but up.

They think they got that boost Friday when Anna Doman told jurors her sister, Kathleen Savio, fearfully described being threatened with death by the former Bolingbrook cop six weeks before she drowned in her bathtub.

“It’s always good to end on a positive note,” State’s Attorney James Glasgow said after testimony for the week concluded with Doman’s crucial, albeit secondhand, testimony about Peterson’s alleged threat against Savio.

“We’ve got the first week under our belts and we literally have dozens of witnesses to go,” Glasgow said, contending prosecutors still have plenty of evidence to prove Peterson murdered his third wife in 2004. “We’re confident that we’ll be able to paint the entire picture by the end of the case.”

But steps they’ve taken in court -- combined with rulings by Burmila that seem to undercut key parts of their case -- indicate prosecutors may be pressing to find a way to persuade jurors to convict the 58-year-old Peterson.

Most critically, Glasgow has taken the unusual step of asking Burmila to allow explosive testimony from a witness who earlier claimed that Peterson offered him $25,000 to kill Savio -- or find someone else who would.

Jeffrey Pachter claimed during a 2010 pre-trial hearing that Peterson made the surprise offer in his police car in late 2003 when the two men worked together at a suburban cable company where Peterson moonlighted.

But Glasgow’s mere reference to Pachter’s claim during his opening statements prompted Peterson’s attorney to demand a mistrial and an order from Burmila barring any mention of that allegation.

Glasgow and his assistants filed a sealed request late Thursday asking Burmila to reconsider that ruling so Pachter can testify and presumably repeat the claims he made against Peterson. That request likely will be argued this week.

Legal experts said the move looks like a desperate, last-ditch move to bolster the hearsay evidence and medical reports prosecutors are mostly relying on to show Peterson killed Savio to prevent her from taking a cut of his pension after their divorce.

“It looks like one of many Hail Mary passes they’re trying. They’re overreaching here,” said attorney Sam Amirante, who defended serial killer John Wayne Gacy and later served as a Cook County judge.

Prosecutors didn’t speak publicly about the request, but Assistant State’s Attorney John Connor said in court they want to show the alleged offer to Pachter was part of a continuing effort by Peterson to kill his ex-wife.

Defense attorney Joel Brodsky, who in 2010 dismissed Pachter’s claim as “ridiculous,” predicted Burmila won’t allow the testimony simply because prosecutors failed to specifically disclose before the trial they intended to use Pachter as a witness.

That lack of warning for such a serious allegation would jeopardize Peterson’s right to a fair trial because defense attorneys haven’t had a chance to counter that claim, Brodsky said.

“We might as well tell the jury to go home and we’ll start over if that comes in,” Brodsky said.

Several experts agreed the odds of Burmila reversing his own earlier ruling are miniscule.

“There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell it’s coming in,” Amirante said bluntly.

“There’s no chance the judge would allow this in,’’ agreed Brian Telander, a former Cook County prosecutor and DuPage County judge.

Prosecutors appear frustrated by Burmila’s rulings on several key issues in the first week of the trial, including his restriction so far on witnesses even mentioning the October 2007 disappearance of Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy.

Her disappearance prompted authorities to reopen the investigation into Savio’s March 2004 drowning death, which initially had been labeled an accident.

Burmila refused to allow Doman on Friday to mention Stacy Peterson, ruling it would be “much too prejudicial” to Drew Peterson.

Doman only was allowed to testify she began seeking a pathologist in 2007 to re-examine her sister’s body after meeting TV news host Greta VanSusteren, who was in Bolingbrook covering Stacy Peterson’s disappearance.

Doman’s testimony was the first of more than a dozen disputed hearsay statements that form the bulk of the circumstantial case prosecutors have assembled to prove Peterson killed his 40-year-old ex-wife. It remains uncertain how many of those statements Burmila will allow as evidence, and how much information he will allow witnesses to disclose.

Doman recounted for jurors an emotional conversation she claimed to have with Savio in which her younger sister described how Peterson vowed to kill her -- and make her death look like an accident -- to prevent her from getting part of his pension. Doman, though, acknowledged she didn’t alert police or authorities to the threat before Savio’s death.

Other witnesses are expected to testify about similar statements Savio and Stacy Peterson made about actions allegedly taken by Peterson, though prosecutors lack any direct evidence showing Peterson killed his former wife.

That absence, along with the initial ruling her death was an accident, appear to be huge obstacles for prosecutors to overcome.

“Even if they prove she was murdered, how do they prove beyond a reasonable doubt he did it?” Amirante said. “How do they connect him to the murder?”

Burmila also has indicated he may limit testimony about the financial details of Savio’s divorce battle with Peterson, which prosecutors allege is critical to showing why Peterson killed his former wife.

Prosecutors likely will continue to try to “dirty up” Peterson so jurors view his actions suspiciously.

They may have landed a good blow Friday when Doman described seeing Peterson take a $100 bill from Savio’s purse the day after her death and slip it in his pocket, announcing it was for the two young sons he had with Savio.

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