JOLIET – Jurors at Drew Peterson's murder trial withdrew Wednesday to begin deliberations on whether the former Illinois police sergeant murdered his third wife.
Peterson pleaded not guilty to murdering Kathleen Savio in 2004. He was only charged only after his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, disappeared in 2007.
Judge Edward Burmila read 15 minutes of jury instructions to the panelists before they filed out to elect a foreman and begin wading through five weeks of circumstantial and hearsay evidence. Shortly after deliberations began, the jury sent notes requesting to see and hear some evidence, which attorneys agreed the panelists could do in court.
Burmila told jurors they should go in with the presumption that Peterson is innocent — and convict him only if they find him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
"The defendant is not required to prove his innocence," he told them.
Peterson, 58, is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in Savio's death. If convicted, he faces a maximum 60-year prison sentence.
Peterson's attorneys say their client is ready for the jurors' decision.
"He's emotionally and mentally prepared for whatever happens," his lead attorney, Joel Brodsky, told reporters after closing arguments Tuesday.
The jury's task is not an easy one: There is no physical evidence and — for the first time in Illinois history — the prosecution has been allowed to rely heavily on hearsay to build their case.
The jury sent a note requesting Drew and Stacy Peterson's phone records from around the day Savio's body was found. They also asked for a letter Savio wrote saying she feared her husband could kill her and transcripts of two witnesses who presented hearsay evidence implicating Drew Peterson in her death. The attorneys agreed to let jurors have excerpts of transcripts read to them.
During closing arguments Tuesday, prosecutors implored jurors to use common sense in assessing the evidence. The defense said the state fell far short of proving Peterson killed Savio.
Savio's body was found in her bathtub — her hair soaked with blood and a gash on the back of her head. Prosecutors contend Peterson killed the 40-year-old aspiring nurse because he feared a pending divorce settlement would wipe him out financially. The defense contends she died in an accidental slip and fall.
Peterson is suspected but hasn't been charged in Stacy Peterson's disappearance. Prosecutors were barred from mentioning or hinting that she is presumed dead and that her husband is the lone suspect in her disappearance. While outside observers connect Savio's death and Stacy Peterson's disappearance, jurors aren't supposed to factor that Stacy Peterson vanished into their deliberations.
Investigators botched the initial investigation into Savio's death and collected no fingerprints, blood, hair samples or any other physical evidence, leaving prosecutors with a circumstantial case.
Prosecutor Chris Koch went through more than a dozen hearsay statements Savio allegedly made to others before she died and that Stacy Peterson made before she disappeared. Hearsay, or statements not based on the direct knowledge of a witness, isn't usually admissible in court, but Illinois passed a law in 2008, dubbed "Drew's Law," that allows it in rare circumstances.
Koch reminded jurors that one witness testified how Savio had described Drew Peterson saying to her, "I'm going to kill you." Another witness said Peterson told Savio he could employ his police expertise to kill her and make it look like an accident.
Defense attorney Joe Lopez countered that the more than 30 witnesses the state had presented provided "garbage" as evidence. He said the hearsay was no more credible than water-cooler gossip they might hear around the office.