It’s been 1 1/2 years since Drew Peterson’s been seen in a Will County courtroom, and within moments Friday he was in trouble with a bailiff.
Sheriff’s deputies led the former Bolingbrook cop, bearded in a blue prison jumpsuit and wearing rounded glasses, into Judge Sarah Jones’ courtroom. As he entered, the bailiff gave her standard admonition to a small courtroom full of reporters and sketch artists: no talking to prisoners.
Peterson waved to the crowd and said, “That would be me.”
The quip earned him a warning from the bailiff – she said he was being inappropriate – but already Peterson was sending a message: He’s still Drew.
Even though he’s been locked away in jail since 2009 awaiting trial on murder charges for the drowning death of his third wife, 40-year-old Kathleen Savio, he seemed to be in good spirits.
“Drew is very happy that he can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said his attorney, Joel Brodsky.
But Brodsky couldn’t say Friday when Peterson’s trial will begin. An Illinois appellate court handed Peterson a defeat last month, prompting his return to the Will County courthouse. His attorneys only said they’re looking for a trial in the next two or three months.
Peterson didn’t get a chance to banter or wise-crack with TV reporters outside the courthouse as he’s done in the past. Deputies pulled a transport van up to the prisoner entrance to try to block cameras’ view as they whisked him into the building.
Instead Peterson, 58, let reporters see him smile as he greeted his attorneys inside the courtroom. He chit-chatted with a deputy, and he rocked in his chair a bit while waiting for Jones.
Friday’s hearing gave attorneys a chance to “get our feet under us,” as one defense lawyer put it, now that the appeal is over. Jones assigned Peterson’s case to Judge Edward Burmila, who will preside over the trial because Peterson’s last judge retired. Burmila is a former state’s attorney who lost the office to Jim Glasgow, Peterson’s prosecutor, 20 years ago.
The crowd of reporters then followed Peterson from Jones’ courtroom to Burmila’s. Both are small and offer about 20 seats in their galleries. Deputies opened the doors to Burmila’s courtroom so the overflow crowd could be accommodated.
Defense attorneys told Burmila they’d filed motions to further challenge prosecutors’ evidence, and Burmila set another hearing for May 17.
That’s when a trial schedule might begin to take shape. Glasgow said he’s ready for it. He and Peterson’s defense team said they’re pleased to have Burmila preside. Defense lawyers said they’re eager to start their client’s trial too, but they must first sort through the schedules of at least six high-profile attorneys on their side alone.
Brodsky called it the “Seal Team Six of Illinois lawyers.”
He also said they’re not done fighting the hearsay statements now allowed by the appellate court. The disputed evidence includes statements purportedly made to other people by Savio and Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy.
Stacy Peterson vanished from their Bolingbrook home in 2007 and hasn’t been seen since. Peterson is still a suspect.
Prosecutors said the evidence ties Drew Peterson to Savio’s death. At least some of the purported statements are explosive, including claims Stacy Peterson made to a friend and to her minister that Drew Peterson coaxed her to provide an alibi for him on the night Savio drowned.
But defense attorneys said prosecutors have no evidence, and they called the hearsay statements “rumors.”
“We don’t convict people on rumors in America,” attorney Joe Lopez said. “You just think about the rumors you hear at work about what somebody did and it goes down three, four people, and all of a sudden it’s even more drastic than it was before. So to convict people on rumors is absolutely unconstitutional.”
A Will County judge in 2010 agreed six of the disputed hearsay statements were admissible as evidence, but he blocked eight other statements, ruling their reliability was too suspect.
The appellate court first upheld that decision, but prosecutors asked the Illinois Supreme Court to intervene. The Supreme Court sent the matter back to the appellate court, which reversed itself and ruled the statements could not be barred as evidence over questions of their reliability.
Glasgow dismissed the defense team’s saber-rattling when reporters brought it up.
“The defense lawyers have said how many things to you?” Glasgow said. “And how many things that they have said to you have been right? Count ‘em. We’re ready for trial.”
Since Peterson’s last appearance in a Will County courtroom, a made-for-TV movie starring Rob Lowe as Peterson has only enhanced his notoriety. Though he smiled between hearings, Peterson looked serious while standing before Burmila, saying only “yes, your honor” and “thank you, your honor.”
“You’re welcome sir,” Burmila answered as the hearing ended.
Glasgow said Peterson’s new judge “truly understands criminal law,” and he expects to have a “nice, fair trial.” Brodsky called Burmila a “great jurist” and a “straight shooter.”
Burmila recently presided over the trials of a drunken driver from Steger who killed his girlfriend’s 5-year-old son and a woman who threw a fatal but consensual punch in a $5 Crest Hill party bet.
Though some questioned the reckless battery charges filed against Tiffany Startz, the woman who threw the punch, Burmila let Glasgow take her to trial. He ultimately found her not guilty by directed verdict, meaning Startz never had to put on a defense.
He also let another former state’s attorney, Jeff Tomczak, angle for a new trial last year after a jury convicted Cecil Conner, the drunken driver in the former case.
Tomczak sought jailhouse recordings of Conner, his client, and Burmila frustrated Glasgow’s staff when he said Tomczak could have some. The Illinois Supreme Court overruled Burmila before things could go much further, and Burmila denied Conner a new trial in the end.