JOLIET, Ill. — Drew Peterson showed nearly no emotion during his trial, yet the once famously jocular ex-Illinois police officer screamed out his innocence before he was sentenced to 38 years in prison for his third wife's death in an outburst that suggested reality may be settling in.
"I did not kill Kathleen!" Peterson shouted as he leaned into a courtroom microphone Thursday, emphasizing each of the five words.
Without missing a beat, his dead wife's sister, Susan Doman, shouted back, "Yes, you did! You liar!" before the judge ordered sheriff's deputies to remove her from the courtroom.
For years, Peterson casually dismissed and even joked about suggestions he killed his third wife, Kathleen Savio, in 2004, or that he was behind the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson.
His sudden explosion of fury Thursday as he stepped up to address the judge who would sentence him for Savio's death left spectators gasping. Lead state prosecutor James Glasgow said it exposed the real Drew Peterson — the one more than capable of murder.
"We all got an opportunity to see a psychopath reveal himself in open court," Glasgow told reporters shortly after Thursday's hearing. "That shrill ... screech. ... That's the guy that killed Kathy."
"It was scary," Doman added later. "This is what my sister had to go through."
It was a climax in a long-running drama that has played out in the media amid speculation that Peterson sought to use his law enforcement expertise to get away with murder.
Savio's death was initially ruled an accident after her body was found jammed into a dry bathtub at her home, a gash on the back of her head and her hair soaked in blood. It was Stacy Peterson's 2007 disappearance that prompted authorities to take another look and eventually reclassify Savio's death as a homicide.
But the sentencing likely isn't the end of the story. Prosecutors said they could charge Peterson in the disappearance of his fourth wife, who vanished when she was 23. An appeal also awaits, and defense attorneys believe the conviction could easily get tossed, in part because prosecutors heavily relied on hearsay evidence.
"It has a good a chance of a successful appeal as any case I've ever seen," Steve Greenberg, one of Peterson's attorneys, said late Thursday.
Illinois does not have the death penalty, and the 59-year-old Peterson had faced a maximum 60-year prison term. Judge Edward Burmila gave him four years' credit for time he has served since his 2009 arrest.
Before the sentence was announced, Peterson started his statement to the judge with a startling scream — then went on for 30 more minutes, continuing in mostly hushed tones, crying and trying to regain his composure at times. His voice quivered and his hands were shaking as he reached for a glass of water.
"I loved Kathy. She was a good mom," he said, tearing up. "She did not deserve to die. But she died in an accident."
At times, Peterson seemed to wallow in self-pity, telling the judge tearfully: "I don't deserve this." Another time, he seethed, blaming prosecutors for what he called "the largest railroad job ever" in his case.
Minutes later, Peterson glared at Glasgow and challenged him to look him in the eyes. Glasgow, who had been taking notes, laid down his pen, folded his arms and looked straight back at Peterson. "Never forget what you've done here," Peterson said.
Glasgow later told reporters about that moment, saying, "I was thinking, 'You're a cold-blooded murderer and I'll stare you down until I die.'"
Peterson had divorced Savio a year before her death. His motive for killing her, prosecutors said, was fear that a pending settlement would wipe him out financially.
The glib, cocky former Chicago-area police officer seemed to taunt authorities before his arrest, once suggesting a "Win a Date With Drew Contest," and then after his arrest, a "Win a Conjugal Visit With Drew Contest." More recently, his story inspired a TV movie starring Rob Lowe.
Earlier during Thursday's sentencing hearing, Savio's family members took the stand to convey how their own lives had been shattered by the murder. Henry Savio Jr., the victim's brother, said he hoped Drew Peterson saw visions of his sister.
"I hope she is haunting him in his dreams," he said, adding later that he hoped his sister "is watching (Peterson's) descent into hell."
Another sister, Anna Doman, said she couldn't help thinking about what her sister went through in the moments before she died: "The horror and the betrayal she felt when she realized that someone she had trusted and loved more than anything was killing her."
At one point, Peterson said he'd paid for Kathleen Savio's funeral, prompting her brother to shout across the courtroom, "That's a lie!" He was ordered to leave the courtroom, and later told reporters he couldn't hold himself back.
"It was constant lies out of his mouth," he said. "So, I just erupted and had to tell him."
Prosecutors had no physical evidence tying Peterson to Savio's death and no witnesses placing him at the scene — something Peterson alluded to in his statement.
During last year's trial, they relied on typically barred hearsay — statements Savio made to others before she died and that Stacy Peterson made before she vanished. Illinois passed a hearsay law in 2008, tailored to Drew Peterson's case and dubbed "Drew's Law," which assisted in making some of the evidence admissible.
The hearsay included a friend testifying that Savio told her Peterson once put a knife to her throat and warned her, "I could kill you and make it look like an accident."
Prosecutors suspect Peterson killed his fourth wife because she could point to him for Savio's death. Peterson has maintained his fourth wife ran off with another man and is still alive.