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Barred testimony a big setback for Peterson prosecutors

Scott Rosset| Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Scott Rossetto | Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 21, 2012 6:20AM

Drew Peterson’s murder trial just got a lot tougher for Will County prosecutors.

That’s the bottom line after they lost the testimony of Scott Rossetto, a vital witness who could have raised crucial questions about where the ex-Bolingbrook cop was when his third wife drowned.

Rossetto’s now-barred testimony largely matched the account expected to be offered by the Rev. Neil Schori, who counseled Peterson and his now-missing fourth wife, Stacy, about their marital problems.

Together, the interlocking information offered by the two men could have undercut Peterson’s alibi by showing jurors he allegedly ordered Stacy to lie to police investigating Kathleen Savio’s death, legal experts said.

“It could have been a game-changer,” said Paul DeLuca, a former prosecutor in Cook and DuPage counties now in private practice. “It was more than important; it was critical.”

Both Rossetto and Schori have testified at pre-trial hearings that Stacy Peterson confided a secret to them shortly before she vanished in October 2007. She allegedy told each man that Peterson had ordered her to tell police he had been home with her on the night authorities believe Savio died.

The 40-year-old Savio was found dead in her tub on March 1, 2004, shortly after divorcing Peterson, though the former couple was still battling over their financial assets.

Stacy allegedly told Rossetto and Schori that she had seen Peterson — dressed in black clothing ­— slip into their home the night before Savio was found dead, then instruct her that if questioned she was to say he had been home with her all night.

Judge Edward Burmila initially agreed Friday to allow Rossetto to describe his purported conversation with Stacy Peterson a few days before she disappeared on Oct. 28, 2007.

But Burmila abruptly reversed himself shortly after the 40-year-old U.S. Army captain started recounting his discussion with Stacy when defense attorneys objected, questioning the specific date and location of the purported conversation.

Peterson’s attorneys contended those discrepancies made his claim too unreliable to put before the jury hearing his trial. Burmila agreed, taking the unusual step of simply blocking Rossetto from continuing and not telling jurors why he never returned to the witness stand.

Outside the courtroom, defense attorneys downplayed the ruling, saying it simply shows the weakness of the evidence prosecutors are trying to use to convict the 58-year-old Peterson.

“We’re three weeks into the trial and we have yet to hear a single witness who has a single fact that puts Drew at the scene or puts his hand in doing anything wrong,” defense attorney Steve Greenberg said.

Prosecutors have put on a purely circumstantial case relying almost entirely on medical testimony to show Savio did not drown accidentally and on secondhand hearsay statements Peterson allegedly made to others about Savio’s death.

In that type of case, having two witnesses — Schori and Rossetto — recount similar conversations regarding Peterson would have been powerful evidence, experts said.

“It would have been a real nice piece of corroboration,” said DeLuca. “[Prosecutors] could have said to jurors, ‘we had two people — one a minister — saying the same thing.’ ”

Prosecutors would not comment outside the courtroom, but Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow essentially made that argument while asking Burmila to allow Rossetto to testify.

That Rossetto and Schori made “virtually the same statement” to police only a day apart after Stacy vanished shows their claims are reliable, Glasgow argued unsuccessfully.

Bolstering their credibility is that Rossetto had never met Schori, so he could not have aligned his claims with Schori’s before talking to police, Glasgow said.

“He knew all the same things Stacy told to Neil Schori,” Glasgow said of Rossetto. “What day things happened on didn’t go to [their] reliability.”

A spokeswoman for Stacy’s relatives said she was “disgusted” by Burmila’s ruling, because it blocks jurors from hearing what she called Rossetto’s “valuable” testimony against Peterson.

“His was going to be consistent again with Neil Schori’s — that shows reliability and that’s valuable,” said family spokeswoman Pam Bosco.

Prosecutors still are expected to call Schori to testify about his alleged conversation with Stacy Peterson, but it’s not clear if that will be allowed.

His ruling on that critical issue could come this week.

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