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updated: 8/27/2012 4:33 PM

Peterson's trial defense begins

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  • Drew Peterson

    Drew Peterson
    Associated Press file photo

  • Joel Brodsky, left, and Joe Lopez, defense attorneys for former Bolingbrook police sergeant Drew Peterson, speak to the media outside the Will County courthouse in Joliet during a break in Peterson's murder trial on Monday.

    Joel Brodsky, left, and Joe Lopez, defense attorneys for former Bolingbrook police sergeant Drew Peterson, speak to the media outside the Will County courthouse in Joliet during a break in Peterson's murder trial on Monday.
    Associated Press

Associated Press

Drew Peterson's lawyers began their defense Monday at the former Bolingbrook police sergeant's murder trial, hoping to counter the state's portrayal of him as a man prone to the kind of violence that could have led him to slay his third wife.

Prosecutors rested their four-week, 30-plus witness presentation earlier Monday, ending with a dramatic letter from victim Kathleen Savio, who wrote two years before she was found dead that she feared he would kill her.

State attorneys built a wholly circumstantial case that Peterson, now 58, killed Savio in 2004. Peterson was charged only after his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, went missing in 2007.

In her frantic letter to a Will County prosecutor, which was written during acrimonious divorce proceedings with Peterson, Savio accused her estranged husband of breaking into her house and threatening her with a knife at her throat.

"He asked me several times if I was afraid," according to the letter, excerpts of which were read to jurors by the judge. "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, the 40-year-old Savio was found dead in a bathtub at her home -- a gash on the back of her head and her hair soaked in blood. Her death was initially deemed an accident but was reclassified a homicide after Peterson's fourth wife disappeared.

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. Under questioning Monday, Pontarelli conceded she never saw Peterson strike Savio or raise his voice at her.

"He was very respectful ... a good neighbor," she said.

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 said. "She wouldn't let someone hit her without her hitting back."

After prosecutors rested Monday, 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.

Greenberg told Burmila in making his request that prosecutors hadn't entered any evidence putting Peterson in Savio's house the night she died or provided any detail about how Peterson might have killed her.

"We have no theory about what happened to this lady?" Greenberg said, his voice rising. "There's nothing here! Nothing! ... They just hope this jury 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. A friend of Savio's, Kristen Anderson, testified that Savio told her Peterson had said to her, "I could kill you and make it look like an accident."

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.

There was some strong testimony not based on hearsay. A former co-worker of Peterson's, Jeff Pachter, testified that Peterson once offered him $25,000 to hire a hit man to kill Savio, though he never acted on the request.

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