JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — A judge said he believed Drew Peterson could receive a fair trial in his murder case on Thursday, but not before chiding prosecutors for entering inadmissible evidence and even criticizing them in front of jurors.
Testimony resumed with paramedics and a locksmith shortly after the in-court legal drama that came close to ending the high-profile trial before it had barely begun.
Judge Edward Burmila's decision not to grant a mistrial followed a series of blunders by prosecutors, who are seeking to prove the 58-year-old Peterson killed his third wife, Kathleen Savio, whose body was found in a dry bathtub in 2004. He also is a suspect in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, but has never been charged in her case.
Burmila made it clear he seriously entertained the possibility of effectively ending the trial. He wondered aloud Wednesday if a witness' comment had made Peterson appear menacing in jurors' eyes, undermining his shot at a fair trial. But Thursday, Burmila said ending the trial was unnecessary.
"The court believes that the defendant's ability to receive a fair trial is not extinguished at this time," Burmila said.
This most recent legal hurdle is the latest of many in a saga that stretches back nearly a decade. A botched initial investigation, for instance, left prosecutors with no physical evidence and forced them to rely heavily on normally prohibited hearsay.
Shortly after Burmila's ruling, testimony continued with prosecutors calling a paramedic to the stand in a bid to prove Peterson staged a scene, making it look like Savio died in a bathroom accident.
Prosecutors have suggested Peterson placed the towel there after paramedics arrived to ensure it looked like Savio had been taking a bath. Paramedic Louis Oleszkiewicz commented on an investigation photo of the bathroom, shown on a courtroom screen: "This towel — right there — was not there that evening," he said.
A locksmith who opened the door of Savio's home that night at Drew Peterson's request also took the stand. He said he left the scene after he heard a scream — which was the sound of a neighbor who had just discovered Savio's body inside.
"I got the heck out of Dodge," he said. "I just sorta figured — it wasn't good. ... You don't want the locksmith around, trust me."
Peterson, who was a police officer in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in Savio's death. He also has said he wasn't responsible for his fourth wife's disappearance.
The trial looked like it might be doomed on Wednesday. A furious Judge Burmila admonished prosecutors after Thomas Pontarelli, a former neighbor of Savio's, began testifying about finding a .38-caliber bullet on his driveway. Pontarelli hinted that Peterson may have planted it there to intimidate him.
On Thursday, Burmila told jurors to disregard Pontarelli's statement. And, in a rarity for trials, the judge signaled to jurors that the state had messed up, telling them a prosecutor had asked a question "she knew would elicit an inadmissible response."
Defense attorney Steve Greenberg, told the judge Thursday that prosecutors were bent on proving Savio, neighbors and others were afraid of Peterson as backhanded way to try to prove he committed murder.
"Everyone is afraid of Mr. Peterson so he must have done this (committed murder)," Greenberg said, suggesting that was the state's only recourse given an absence of evidence.
Judge Burmila appeared to sympathize with that argument while explaining his decision, saying "There is no doubt that the victim's state of mind (that she might have been fearful) is immaterial" and that only facts supporting the murder allegation are relevant.
Michael Tarm can be reached at www.twitter.com/mtarm