JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — Jurors said Friday that comments Stacy Peterson made before her 2007 disappearance played the decisive role in convincing them to convict her husband, former police officer Drew Peterson, of killing his ex-wife — though the juror who held out longest described feeling uncomfortable relying on that hearsay.
Peterson was convicted Thursday of first-degree murder after a six-week trial that was the first of its kind in Illinois. Prosecutors based their case on normally barred hearsay evidence, which was allowed only after the Legislature passed a law in 2008 specifically tailored to Peterson’s case.
The strategy was risky and grew in large part from a lack of physical evidence collected in the case after investigators initially deemed Kathleen 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.
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.
Ron Supalo, the sole unconvinced juror for the entire second day of deliberations, said in a telephone interview Friday night that 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 and works for the U.S. Postal Service. “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.”
But he said he eventually realized that his role as a juror was to determine facts — not interpret law.
“We 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.”
Defense lawyers have said the presentation of hearsay, or information reported by a witness that is not based on the witness’ direct knowledge, undercut Peterson’ 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.
Supalo said he was the only juror not convinced of Peterson’s guilt at the end of the first day of deliberations Wednesday. He told his fellow he wanted to sleep on it, but said he “barely slept” because he kept thinking about the evidence.
But by Thursday afternoon, just before the verdict was read in court to gasps and tears, he’d resolved several issues in his mind, including accepting Schori’s and Smith’s testimony as credible, he said.
“It was the totality of the evidence that convinced me,” he said.
Peterson faces a maximum 60-year prison term when sentenced Nov. 26 for Savio’s 2004.
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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