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Opening statements to begin in trial of Drew Peterson, accused of drowning third wife

By Steve Schmadeke, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Former Bolingbrook, Ill., Police Sgt. Drew Peterson placed his third wife into a sleeper hold until she lost consciousness, lifted her into the bathtub in her master bathroom and held her head underwater until she drowned, Will County’s top prosecutor has alleged in court.

After she was dead, Peterson allegedly struck Kathleen Savio, 40, on the back of the head, perhaps with his police baton, to make her death appear accidental, prosecutors have said.

Yet before they attempt to prove that Peterson was responsible for Savio’s 2004 death, prosecutors will face an unusual obstacle: They will first have to convince jurors that Savio was murdered.

That process begins Tuesday with opening statements, the unofficial start of the murder trial that began last week with jury selection. It’s been nearly five years since Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy, disappeared and the sensational case made national headlines. Drew Peterson helped fuel the media frenzy, doing interviews on the “Today” show, “Good Morning America” and “Dr. Phil,” and the saga eventually became a Lifetime TV movie, starring Rob Lowe as Peterson.

After 23-year-old Stacy vanished in 2007, Savio’s body was exhumed and nearly two years later, Peterson was charged with Savio’s murder. Peterson, 58, is the sole suspect in Stacy’s disappearance but has not been charged in that case.

The first challenge for prosecutors is the coroner’s jury finding not long after her death that Savio’s drowning was accidental. Dr. Bryan Mitchell, the pathologist who performed Savio’s original autopsy, also wrote that the gash on the back of her head “may have been related to a fall” in the tub.

A police report notes that Mitchell, a deputy coroner and a crime scene investigator agreed that Savio’s death was an accident. Authorities now say they didn’t properly investigate Savio’s death until Peterson’s fourth wife vanished.

In looking at how prosecutors will try to prove that Savio’s death was a murder, it’s worth noting another case they have mentioned in Peterson’s pretrial hearings: the sensational 19th-century British trial of George Joseph Smith. Convicted on charges he drowned three wives in bathtubs for financial gain, Smith’s case was a seminal moment for forensic science.

Dubbed the “Brides in the Bath” murders in the press, the trial featured the testimony of one of the first celebrity pathologists, who noted that bruising found on one wife’s exhumed body was consistent with an attack and that she couldn’t have accidentally drowned in such a small tub.

Will County prosecutors are taking a similar tack. State’s Attorney James Glasgow has said the bath tub in which Savio drowned was “tiny” — a “tea cup.”

“If somebody were to try and slip and fall in that tub, what would happen?” he said during a pretrial hearing. “It’s 40 inches long.”

Prosecutors instead posit that Peterson murdered Savio to protect his financial interests. The two divorced in 2003 but a trial over their property distribution was looming at the time of her death.

“This was a premeditated murder and it was to stop her from testifying and destroying (Peterson’s) financial world,” Glasgow has said.

A state’s attorney spokesman and attorney Ralph Meczyk, who will question the expert witnesses for the defense, both declined to talk about the forensics of the case. But an extensive pretrial hearing in 2010 over whether some hearsay statements would be admitted at trial included testimony from numerous witnesses and experts, offering a glimpse at how attorneys might try the case.

After Savio’s body was exhumed in 2007, two pathologists conducted new autopsies. High-profile pathologist Dr. Michael Baden found a previously undiscovered injury, an apparent blunt force wound to Savio’s diaphragm. But experts disagree on whether that injury happened before she died, or if it was caused by the body’s natural decomposition.

Defense attorneys will attempt to cast doubt on other evidence, saying bruising and abrasions on Savio’s legs and buttocks could have come from sexual intercourse with her boyfriend on the day before she was last seen alive. They will point out that Peterson’s DNA wasn’t found under Savio’s fingernails — a possible problem with prosecutors’ sleeper-hold scenario.

Savio was found face down inside the oval tub on her left side with blood running from her head toward the drain. Her right foot was pressed against the tub wall with the toes hyperextended, a sign she was struggling with an attacker or that her body was posed, state experts testified, a theory disputed by Peterson’s experts.

A bar of soap and a bottle of shampoo were also found in the tub.

Prosecutors will rely on pathologists who will testify that the pattern of injuries found on both the front and back of her body couldn’t have been caused by a single slip-and-fall.

Prosecutors may also point to a study they did of accidental bathtub drownings in at least 14 Illinois counties from 2003 to 2005, using subpoenaed records. The survey turned up 43 deaths, only two of which were caused by a fall in the tub. In those two cases, prosecutors have said, there was massive intracranial bleeding, while none was found in Savio’s first autopsy.

A state-hired pathologist, Dr. Larry Blum, also has testified the death scene was “very, very pristine” with no water splashed out of the tub and none of the bottles surrounding it knocked over. The positioning of her arms and legs also indicated she hadn’t slipped in the tub, he said.

“She’s so far out of the usual pattern as what one sees,” Blum said at a pretrial hearing of Savio’s injuries. “Most of the time when people do fall in tubs and drown, you might have a little cut over their eye, you might have a bruised ear.

“But not all these injuries at once from a fall, that’s just hard to believe.”

Defense attorneys have retained three expert pathologists of their own who will testify that Savio’s death was clearly an accident and that the original Will County investigators, including Dr. Mitchell, were in the best position to make that determination.

“(Dr. Mitchell) is rendering, in my opinion, a manner of death that it’s accidental,” Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, director of autopsy and forensic services at the University of Michigan’s medical school, has previously testified. “Because he’s not going to the coroner and saying I want you to look at more information or he’s not going to law enforcement and saying they got it wrong.”

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