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Drew Peterson’s lawyers ready to begin defense

By Stacy St. Clair, Steve Schmadeke and Ryan Haggerty, Chicago Tribune –

CHICAGO — Assuming the Drew Peterson prosecution rests Monday and the judge does not dismiss the murder charge — two highly likely, but not guaranteed, scenarios — the former Bolingbrook, Ill., police sergeant’s attorneys will launch a defense.

Over the next few days, they are expected to call pathologists and law-enforcement officials to help bolster their assertion that Peterson’s third wife, Kathleen Savio, died after accidentally falling in her bathtub and drowning in 2004. Prosecutors contend that he killed her amid a bitter divorce in which they battled over his pension and child-support payments.

Before Peterson’s lawyers calls their first witness, they will ask Judge Edward Burmila to issue a directed verdict, a rare judiciary order in which the court would drop the charges against Peterson and set him free for the first time since his 2009 arrest because the state failed to prove its case. Peterson’s attorneys, however, did not seem to be banking on such a reprieve as they discussed potential testimony during the coming week.

Though the defense has promised to present a “slew of witnesses,” Peterson is not expected to be among them. His attorneys played coy on the subject last week, but sources close to those discussions acknowledge the defendant’s sarcastic demeanor would not play well with the jury and his answers could make previously barred testimony admissible during the prosecution’s rebuttal.

“We want to keep the state guessing,” lead defense attorney Joel Brodsky said. “You know, the bastards that we are.”

Peterson has three pathologists on retainer, but only two are expected to testify that Savio may have accidentally drowned. The third, Dr. Daniel Spitz, had told the National Enquirer that Savio’s death was most likely a homicide because “people don’t drown in bathtubs.” But then he was hired as a defense expert and changed his position.

Peterson, 58, is charged with killing Savio, 40, who was found dead in a dry bathtub March 1, 2004. Despite the initial accidental death ruling, officials reopened Savio’s case after Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy, disappeared in 2007.

Drew Peterson has not been charged in Stacy Peterson’s disappearance, though he remains a suspect. He denies wrongdoing in both cases.

Over the past four weeks, the prosecution has presented more than 30 witnesses to help paint a portrait of Savio as a woman who was terrified of her ex-husband and predicted her death at his hands. They also called two experts who testified that her injuries were not consistent with an accident.

Prosecutors, however, haven’t yet explicitly presented their theory of the case — that Peterson put Savio in a police chokehold until she passed out and then drowned her in her Bolingbrook bath tub. He then allegedly struck her in the back of the head, perhaps with a police baton, to make it look like an accident, according to their theory.

Judge Edward Burmila has hindered the prosecution’s ability to lay the groundwork for that scenario, saying the state had presented nothing to support that claim.

“You don’t even have any evidence linking him to the scene and now you want to say this is what he did there?” Burmila asked prosecutors during court Friday.

Burmila has signed an order compelling Savio’s divorce attorney Harry Smith to testify as a defense witness Monday. Both sides have intimated that Smith knows Savio lied under oath in connection with a 2002 misdemeanor battery case stemming from a front-yard brawl between her and Stacy.

Peterson’s attorneys also may call Savio’s neighbor, Mary Pontarelli, who already testified for the prosecution. The defense hopes her testimony offsets an oft-recounted incident in which Savio claimed Peterson broke into her home in July 2002, pinned her to the stairs and held a knife to her throat.

The defense has stated in court that Pontarelli told investigators that Savio described the interaction as a “nice conversation.”

The defense case is expected to take two or three days, Peterson attorney Joe Lopez said. Though the slow-moving trial has deviated from its schedule on several occasions, court officials say it’s likely that closing arguments could be held Sept 4.

“We want to get this case to the jury,” Lopez said. “We’ve been delayed and delayed and delayed. I think when you see our case, it’s not going to go anything like the state’s case. It’ll go in smooth, it’ll go in quick, and we’ll get to closing arguments.”

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