By Steve Schmadeke, Matthew Walberg and Stacy St. Clair, Chicago Tribune –
CHICAGO — In the latest bizarre twist in the Drew Peterson trial, a defense attorney called a witness who testified Peterson’s fourth wife told him Peterson murdered Kathleen Savio.
The move, made hours before the defense team rested its case, overshadowed their much-anticipated final witness, Peterson’s teenage son Thomas, who told jurors that he never believed his father killed his mother.
Wednesday’s stunning testimony came after Peterson attorney Joel Brodsky decided to call Savio’s divorce attorney Harry Smith against the advice of other members of the defense team.
“It’s a gift from God,” State’s Attorney James Glasgow was overheard saying outside the courtroom after Smith finished testifying.
Before defense attorneys called Smith to the stand, the judge warned them of the possible consequences and Peterson lawyer Steve Greenberg could be heard in the courthouse hallway urging Brodsky not to do it.
“I’ve filed 74 (expletive) motions to keep him out and now you’re going to undo all of it,” Greenberg said in a loud, exasperated voice.
Also Wednesday, 19-year-old Thomas Peterson, Drew Peterson’s son with Savio, took the stand and told jurors that “I believe that my dad is innocent.” The Ivy League student, who introduced himself as Thomas Drew Peterson, told jurors his father was “broken up” by his mother’s death.
Brodsky called Smith to the stand in an attempt to rebut critical testimony from Stacy’s pastor Neil Schori, who told jurors Stacy confided to him that she lied to state police about Drew Peterson’s alleged slaying of Savio.
A few months later, Stacy contacted Smith about divorcing her husband. She disappeared roughly four days later in October of 2007. Prosecutors believe Peterson killed her but he has not yet been charged.
There is no physical evidence tying Peterson to Savio’s drowning in her Bolingbrook bathtub, which was originally treated as an accident. So prosecutors have built a circumstantial case that relies heavily on hearsay statements such as Schori’s.
Defense attorneys had fought to keep Smith from testifying as a prosecution witness. Judge Edward Burmila warned Wednesday morning that if they then called Smith, prosecutors could question him about every detail of his eight-minute conversation with Stacy.
But Brodsky nonetheless called Smith, intending to draw out testimony that Stacy had a financial motive to lie to Schori. Stacy had asked Smith if she could use her knowledge of Savio’s death to wring more money out of her husband in a divorce, Smith had previously testified in a pre-trial hearing.
As jurors intently took notes, Smith surprised defense attorneys by describing Savio’s query differently.
“She wanted to know if the fact that he killed Kathleen could be used against him,” Smith testified, later adding that he’d told Stacy to be careful and advised her she could be charged with a crime.
After Smith testified a second time that Stacy told him “Drew killed Kathleen,” defense attorney Joseph Lopez called out “Joel!” and motioned Brodsky over to the defense table. Brodsky then dropped the line of questioning.
Under questioning from prosecutors, Smith testified that Stacy told him she thought Peterson was upset at her because he believed she’d told his son Thomas about his alleged murder of Savio.
Stacy also said she had so much dirt on Peterson from his police job that he wouldn’t be able to do anything to her, Smith told jurors.
Peterson’s voice was in the background during the call, Smith said.
“He called to her, asked her what she was doing and who she was talking to,” Smith said.
Smith also testified that Stacy told him Peterson was tracking her cell phone via GPS and that she had gotten a new phone that he didn’t know about.
Brodsky asked whether Smith warned Stacy to be careful because she could be charged with extortion.
“During that call, I did tell her to be careful, but it wasn’t about extortion. It was concealment of a homicide,” Smith replied.
Courtroom observers said calling Smith to the stand was a serious tactical error.
“Brodsky just walked backward over a cliff with Drew Peterson in his arms,” said Kathleen Zellner, a prominent medical malpractice attorney who has been watching the trial.
But Brodsky defended the decision.
“We’ve now given a motive for Stacy to fabricate,” he said outside the courtroom.
Thomas Peterson smiled at his father as he took a seat in the witness stand Wednesday afternoon. The elder Peterson leaned forward in his seat and occasionally took notes as his son testified.
“I believe that my dad is innocent,” said the University of Pennsylvania student. The judge struck the testimony after jurors had heard it.
He testified that on the night his mother was found drowned, his father took him and his brother home and “told us to go to bed and said he would go and try to figure out what was going on.”
Later, he and his brother were downstairs when his father called them upstairs to his room.
“He …said that our mother had died. He was very, very shaken up about it,” Thomas Peterson testified. “I’d never seen anyone so sad. Especially for someone who didn’t break down with emotion at all, it was very hard to see.”
Drew Peterson told the judge Wednesday that he declined to testify. Prosecutors are expected to call rebuttal witnesses Thursday.
Pamela Bosco, the spokeswoman for Stacy Peterson’s family, said her heart broke for Savio as she watched Thomas Peterson vouch for his father.
“That’s what the sad thing about this is,” Bosco said. “This man, this coward would rather put his son on the stand to testify than testify himself.”
In a courthouse elevator after testifying, Thomas Peterson declined a request to speak with reporters camped outside.
“God, no,” he said softly. “I don’t want any part of that.”