JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — Drew Peterson formally introduced himself to would-be jurors Monday in his long-delayed murder trial, but it was clear many of them already were familiar with the former suburban Chicago police officer known to make crass jokes in the media.
Peterson, 58, is charged with killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio, in 2004. Her body was found in a dry bathtub in her home, her hair soaked with blood, but her death was ruled accidental until police began investigating the 2007 disappearance of the ex-police sergeant's fourth wife, Stacy Peterson. He is a suspect in that case as well, although he has not been charged.
Peterson, his trademark mustache shaved off, stood and spoke to some 40 potential jurors as jury selection began Monday.
"Good morning ladies and gentlemen, I'm Mr. Peterson," he said in a steady voice.
Finding an impartial jury was the first immediate challenge for attorneys in the trial, in which jurors are likely to hear statements Savio and Stacy Peterson allegedly made to friends and relatives about threats Peterson made. Such hearsay is usually barred, but an appellate court ruled jurors can hear the statements.
One question looming over the trial is how much Peterson's personality will influence the jury. Before his arrest, Peterson was often seen joking about a "Win A Date With Drew" contest, his missing wife's menstrual cycle and other topics that were widely seen as inappropriate. Even after his arrest in 2009, Peterson called a Chicago radio show to make jokes about life behind bars.
Despite a judge's order to avoid all news about Peterson, several of the prospective jurors said they found it hard to avoid media reports about him. The 200-person jury pool has been waiting three years for the trial, which was put off because of appellate court battles over the hearsay statements.
Several potential jurors said they had watched a 2011 cable TV movie about the Savio case titled "Drew Peterson: Untouchable," in which actor Rob Lowe portrays the former Bolingbrook police officer.
Many insisted they understood the movie was Hollywood fiction. One potential juror who works as a plumber watched the movie and said it made Peterson look guilty of murder, but he said he could separate the movie from evidence presented during trial.
One man said that when he hears Peterson's name on the radio he switches it off or leaves the room. But the man said that just last week he saw Peterson's photograph splashed across the front page of a suburban Chicago newspaper.
One woman, asked what she thinks she's heard about the case, answered, "Something about a bathtub."
Vetting would-be jurors typically takes a few days, but extra time is sometimes required in high-profile cases to weed out those who come in with well-formed opinions. Jury selection Monday went well into the evening before wrapping up for the day. Eight jurors have been chosen so far.
Jury selection is scheduled to resume Tuesday morning. Opening statements at Peterson's trial in Joliet are slated for next Tuesday.
Jurors are likely to hear from a parade of pathologists who will dispute each other's conclusions about how the 40-year-old Savio died. They will hear about her death being ruled an accident, her body being exhumed after 23-year-old Stacy Peterson's disappearance and the autopsy after which her cause of death was changed from accidental to homicide — and the continued dispute over those findings.
There's apparently no physical evidence, so the hearsay is the heart of prosecutors' case.
Before jury selection began Monday, Will County Judge Edward Burmila refused prosecutors' request to give them blanket approval to admit eight key hearsay statements. Burmila said he will make a final ruling on the admissibility of each statement only as they come up at trial.
Neither Burmila nor the attorneys spoke in any detail about the substance of the eight statements.
At a 2010 hearing to determine what hearsay a jury could hear, dozens of witnesses testified that Savio told them she feared Peterson would kill her and make it look like an accident.
Peterson's lead attorney, Joel Brodsky, has said the three years that Peterson has been in jail and largely out of the public eye might help him because the memories of his behavior have faded.
"I've never heard of anything comparable to this — a jury pool waiting around for so long knowing what case they're going to be in and the reliance on hearsay," said Gal Pissetzky, a Chicago defense lawyer with no link to the case.
Peterson, jailed since his arrest, pleaded not guilty. His attorneys say Savio's death was an accident and that Stacy Peterson — 30 years younger than Drew Peterson — ran off with another man and is alive. Authorities have said they believe she is dead, although her body has never been found.
Follow Michael Tarm at www.twitter.com/mtarm .
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