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In Illinois, a former police officer has been at the center of a murder mystery for years now. Drew Peterson is accused of killing his third wife, and he is a suspect in the disappearance of his fourth wife. Now a law dubbed Drews Law may allow jurors to hear the words of Petersons dead and missing wives in court. A crucial pretrial hearing has ended and a judge will rule on the controversial issue of admitting hearsay evidence.
NPRs Cheryl Corley reports.
CHERYL CORLEY: Drew Peterson was a cop in Bolingbrook, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, for 29 years. He has been married four times and both of his last two wives told friends and relatives they feared him. Petersons last wife, Stacey Peterson, disappeared two years ago. After she went missing, officials reopened an investigation into the 2004 death of Petersons third wife, Kathleen Savio, whose body was found in a bathtub. Her death was initially ruled an accidental drowning. Later her body was exhumed and a coroner ruled it a homicide.
Peterson has courted the media throughout the investigations. He discussed the case as he made the rounds on national television shows. Here he is on CNNs Larry King Live.
(Soundbite of TV show, Larry King Live)
Mr. LARRY KING (Host): The third wife, you think what happened?
Mr. DREW PETERSON (Former Police officer): Dont know.
CORLEY: On NBCs Today Show.
(Soundbite of TV show, NBCs Today Show)
Mr. MATT LAUER (Host): Considering that you were already under the magnifying glass, how did you greet that news?
Mr. PETERSON: It was kind of shocking. We believe for the last four years that her death was accidental. And then obviously...
CORLEY: Peterson pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder charges and theres been no physical evidence to link him to his third wifes death or his fourth wifes disappearance. But during a nearly month-long hearing that ended yesterday, about 70 witnesses testified. Several said Kathleen Savio and Stacey Peterson were afraid of their husband, and that Savio, who was divorcing Peterson, feared he would kill her.
Outside the courthouse, Pamela Bosco, a spokesperson for the family of missing Stacey Peterson, says hearsay evidence should be heard in Drew Petersons upcoming trial.
Ms. PAMELA BOSCO (Family Spokesperson): Theres a lot in the past that these women had spoken and written about that pointed in the direction of Drew as their abuser. So I think that should be paid attention in court. Even though they are not here to say it, I think their words should be recognized.
CORLEY: Typically hearsay or statements made outside of judicial proceedings are considered unreliable and not allowed in trials. However, there are plenty of exceptions in federal and common law and in several states. And in 2008, the Illinois General Assembly passed a measure quickly dubbed Drews Law. It allows a judge to admit hearsay statements if a prosecutor can prove a defendant may have killed a witness to prevent him or her from testifying.
Former judge and Chicago-Kent College Law Professor David Erickson says that is very similar to federal rules of evidence.
Professor DAVID ERICKSON (Chicago-Kent College of Law): Aimed at probably what we would call mob cases or organized crime cases where there was the fear by the government that a mob figure on trial would kill the witnesses against him.
CORLEY: Two Supreme Court rulings are at the heart of the debate over Drews Law. One says hearsay evidence violates the 6th Amendment, since a person cant confront or cross examine the witnesses against him or her. The other ruling held if a defendant likely committed a crime making it impossible for a victim to testify, statements given to law enforcement officials are admissible, especially in domestic violence cases.
In this case, its been mostly relatives, investigators and clergy on the witness stand. Drew Petersons attorney, Joel Brodsky, speaking outside the courtroom, says the Illinois law wont stand.
Mr. JOEL BRODSKY (Attorney): Its unconstitutional and also a violation of ex post facto - a law thats passed in 2008 cannot affect the prosecution of an alleged crime that took place in 2004.
CORLEY: Brodsky presented one witness during the hearing, a pathologist who said Kathleen Savios death was an accident. Brodsky and some legal analysts also argue a judge deciding to allow hearsay in Petersons trial is like finding a defendant guilty before a trial even begins. Whatever the ruling, its expected the states so-called Drews Law will be challenged.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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