The Spokesman-Review

Hearsay bothers last juror to find Peterson guilty

JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — The final juror to agree to convict Drew Peterson of murder in the death of his ex-wife says he “barely slept” one night during the proceedings because the same nagging questions kept popping into his head.

Even after joining fellow members of the panel by casting the last vote for guilty, Ron Supalo remains troubled by the prosecution’s reliance on hearsay, statements not based on a witness’ direct knowledge.

Peterson, the former suburban Chicago police officer, faces a maximum 60-year prison term after his first-degree murder conviction in the death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio. It was the first case in Illinois history to permit the use of hearsay evidence, based on a 2008 state law specifically tailored to Peterson’s case.

“I needed time to think it through,” Supalo, a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, said in a telephone interview Friday evening.

Supalo said he believes the hearsay law might be unconstitutional, but he eventually realized his duty as a juror was only to assess the evidence, not the laws.

“We (the jurors) weren’t the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said. “Right or wrong, this was the hearsay law, and we had to use it in this case.”

Other jurors acknowledged that comments Stacy Peterson, Peterson’s fourth wife, made before her 2007 disappearance played the decisive role in convincing them to convict her husband of killing his ex-wife.

The prosecution’s strategy grew largely from a lack of physical evidence collected in the case after investigators initially deemed Savio’s 2004 death an accident. Prosecutors claimed the hearsay would allow Savio and Stacy Peterson — who is presumed dead — “to speak from their graves” through family and friends.

It worked.

Jury foreman Eduardo Saldana, 22, said the women’s comments were “extremely critical” in deliberations and in his decision to convict Peterson. He said he was one of four jurors who initially had reservations given a lack of physical evidence tying the former police officer to Savio’s death. But Saldana said the more he thought about hearsay testimony from Stacy Peterson’s pastor, the more compelling he found it.

But Supalo said he had some doubts about the credibility of Stacy Peterson’s statements to the Rev. Neil Schori.

During the trial, Schori testified that Stacy Peterson told him weeks before she went missing that her husband got up from bed and left the house about the time of Savio’s death and then returned to stuff women’s clothing in their washing machine. Peterson also coached his wife for hours on how to lie to police, Schori told jurors.

“When it was the 11 for guilty and just me holding out, I told them, ‘You all believe Schori’s testimony is gospel because he is a man of God,’” Supalo said. “They said, ‘It is.’ And I said, ‘No, it’s not!’”

Supalo also said he had difficulty coming to terms with convicting someone based on what others claimed someone else said.

“I’m uncomfortable with the Illinois law that allowed hearsay,” Supalo, who briefly studied law. “They made the law just for Drew Peterson — applied it to him retroactively. If there was no hearsay in his case — Drew Peterson goes free.”

Defense lawyers have said the presentation of hearsay undercut Peterson’s constitutional rights because he couldn’t directly confront his accusers — namely, his third and fourth wives.

They tried to discredit Stacy Peterson by having attorney Harry Smith testify that she asked him if she could squeeze more money out of Peterson in a divorce if she threatened to tell police he killed Savio. But Saldana and other jurors said Smith only ended up stressing that Stacy Peterson knew her husband had, in fact, murdered his ex-wife.

As he realized Smith was starting to hurt Peterson’s case, the defense attorney questioning him, Joel Brodsky, began shouting at Smith, accusing him of lying.

Juror Teresa Mathews, 49, said Friday that Smith had nothing to gain by making up testimony.

“We believed he was a credible witness,” she said.

Although thoughts about the evidence cost Supalo some sleep, by Thursday afternoon, just before the verdict was read in court to gasps and tears, he’d resolved several issues in his mind. Among them was accepting Schori’s and Smith’s testimony as credible, he said.

“It was the totality of the evidence that convinced me,” he said.

Peterson is to be sentenced Nov. 26.

Neighbors found the 40-year-old’s body in the bathtub of her suburban Chicago home — a gash on the back of her head. Investigators initially thought she drowned after slipping in the tub, but reopened the case after Stacy Peterson disappeared.

Peterson also is a suspect in that case, and Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow said Thursday that charges could be forthcoming.

Peterson’s personality had seemed to loom large over the trial, at least to outsiders.

Before his 2009 arrest, the glib, cocky Peterson seemed to taunt authorities, joking on talk shows and even suggesting a “Win a Date With Drew” contest. His behavior inspired a TV movie starring Rob Lowe.

But jurors said Friday that Peterson’s crude and unsavory reputation didn’t factor into their deliberations.

___

Follow Michael Tarm at http://www.twitter.com/mtarm



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