By MICHAEL TARM
JOLIET, Ill. (AP) - Drew Peterson's defense team began Monday to try to counter the state's portrayal of the former suburban Chicago police officer as a bully who was more than capable of slaying his third wife.
Prosecutors rested their four-week, 30-plus witness case earlier on Monday, ending with a dramatic letter from the alleged victim, in which Kathleen Savio said she feared her spouse would kill her.
Peterson, now 58, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in Savio's 2004 death. The former Bolingbrook police sergeant was only charged after his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, went missing in 2007.
In her frantic 2002 letter to a Will County prosecutor, Savio accused her estranged husband of breaking into her house and putting a knife to her throat.
"He asked me several times if I was afraid," according to the letter, which was written during acrimonious divorce proceedings. "I started to panic. He pulled out his knife that he kept around his leg and brought it to my neck. I thought I'd never see my boys again."
Two years later, Savio, 40, was found dead in a bathtub at her home with a gash on the back of her head. Her death was initially deemed accidental but reclassified a homicide after Stacy Peterson disappeared.
Before he was arrested and jailed in 2009, the swaggering Drew Peterson went on a media blitz to declare his innocence. His legal defense started in earnest Monday in front a jury clad in various sports jerseys, one of their many dress-alike stunts.
If Peterson is convicted, he faces a maximum 60-year prison term.
The defense's first witness was Mary Pontarelli, a neighbor and close friend of Savio's who also had testified for the state about finding Savio's body. Pontarelli conceded Monday she never saw Peterson strike Savio or even raise his voice at her.
"He was very respectful ... a good neighbor," she said. "He's a funny guy, he makes jokes about things - not in a mean way."
She also told jurors Savio would have fought back if attacked. The defense has said the absence of defensive wounds on Savio bolstered their contention she died accidentally.
"She's tough," Pontarelli agreed. "She wouldn't let someone hit her without her hitting back."
Rob Sud, a Bolingbrook police officer who went to Savio's house the night her body was found, also testified Monday. He said he saw nothing in the house to raise his suspicions that her death was anything but accidental.
"There wasn't some grand conspiracy to cover something up was there?" defense attorney Steve Greenberg asked, though a judge sustained an objection before the officer could answer.
After prosecutors rested Monday morning, Judge Edward Burmila rejected a defense request that he acquit Peterson even before the case goes to jurors. To grant a directed verdict - which are commonly asked for, but rarely granted - he would have had to conclude that the state fell so far short of proving their case there was no need to go on.
"We have no theory about what happened to this lady?" Greenberg said in arguing for the motion, his voice rising. "There's nothing, here! ... They just hope this jury or your honor dislikes Drew Peterson - so let's presume he did it."
Without any physical evidence following a botched initial investigation, prosecutors had to rely heavily on hearsay evidence, mostly comments that Savio made before she died and that Stacy Peterson made before she vanished.
Hearsay - statements not based on a witness's direct knowledge - is normally barred in trials in the United States, but Illinois passed a law tailored to Peterson's case, dubbed "Drew's Law," allowing hearsay in rare circumstances.
Peterson attorney Joel Brodsky told reporters Monday the defense intends to call to the stand the eldest of Savio's and Peterson's two sons, Tom Peterson, to "tell what he knows about his father's innocence." The recent high school graduate is expected to testify Wednesday.
Defense attorneys also told the judge they want to put Savio's divorce lawyer, Harry Smith, on the stand, in a bid to dent the credibility of hearsay related to Stacy Peterson. Burmila will decide Tuesday if Smith will be allowed to say Peterson called him in 2007 to ask if she could squeeze Drew Peterson for money by threatening to tell police he killed Savio.
Don Babwin also contributed to this report.
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