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Judge denies request for mistrial in Drew Peterson murder trial

The judge in the Drew Peterson murder trial turned down a second request to declare a mistrial. NBCNews.com's Craig Melvin reports.

The judge in Drew Peterson's murder trial denied the defense team's request for a mistrial Thursday, enabling the trial to resume -- with first responders and a locksmith testifying about the night Peterson's third wife was discovered dead.

The mistrial ruling by Will County Judge Edward Burmila during the trial in Joliet, Ill., follows several blunders by prosecutors, who are seeking to prove the 58-year-old former police sergeant killed  Kathleen Savio, in 2004. Peterson also is a suspect in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, but has not been charged in her case. 

The mistrial decision came before prosecutors have even presented the most delicate of the hearsay evidence, including Savio's alleged remarks to others about Peterson threatening to kill her before her body was found in a dry bathtub at her home in Bolingbrook, Ill., a Chicago suburb. 

Prosecutors alleged earlier in the week that Peterson staged Savio's death to look like an accident; the defense argues Savio died after she fell in the tub. 

On Thursday, defense attorney Steven Greenberg asked paramedic Louis Oleskiewicz if he noticed a rubber mat or bath rug when he arrived on the scene, reported The Chicago Tribune.

"So you did see anything in that tub that would keep a person from slipping?" Greenberg said.

"Not that I remember seeing," he said, adding that he leaned over the tub to check for signs of life, The Tribune reported.

Robert Akin Jr., the locksmith called to open the door of Savio’s home, testified he waited downstairs with Peterson and went to sit in his truck once he heard a scream come from upstairs in the bathroom.  

Savio’s divorce attorney, Harry Smith, was called next to testify, but after objections by the defense and sparring between prosecutors and Burmila over the line of questioning, prosecutors decided not to have him testify on Thursday.

They instead called  Lt. Michael R. Newton, who was on the fire truck that responded to Savio’s home. Newton testified he did not see a blue towel on the bathtub edge.  The towel was caught in a crime scene photo.

He said Peterson seemed upset and told him: “This is my ex-wife, treat the scene with respect.” 

Judge in Drew Peterson case adjourns court early; no decision on mistrial

The defense first asked for a mistrial Wednesday, arguing the prosecution had improperly introduced evidence that could taint the jury's objectivity. Burmila gave them another option instead of a mistrial: throw out the testimony in question and tell the jury to ignore it. The defense lawyers took the rest of the day to consider their choices; on Thursday morning, they returned to court and renewed their request for a mistrial.

"So far, we have a jury that thinks that everyone is afraid of Mr. Peterson," defense attorney Steven Greenberg said, NBCChicago.com reported. "How is that fair to Mr. Peterson?"

As he arrived at the Will County, Ill., courthouse Thursday morning, Greenberg said he believed prosecutors were trying to derail the case.

"We think this was calculated," Greenberg said, according to The Tribune. "The prosecution wants to goad us into a mistrial so they can start over and they can recover from their mistakes."

But the judge said Thursday that Peterson still can get a fair trial.

A furious Burmila admonished prosecutors Wednesday after the second witness in just their second day of testimony began talking about finding a .38-caliber bullet on his driveway. Thomas Pontarelli, a former neighbor of Savio's, hinted in his testimony that Peterson may have planted it there to intimidate him.

Prosecutors later admitted under tough questioning by the judge that there was no evidence to support the claim. And Burmila wondered aloud about whether the testimony made Peterson appear menacing in jurors' eyes and undermined his ability to get a fair trial.

Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow himself nearly triggered a mistrial during his opening statement Monday when he referred to an accusation that Peterson once tried to hire a hit man for $25,000. Burmila said there was no proof of that, either, but stopped short then of declaring a mistrial. 

Peterson, who was a police officer in 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 legal snafus are just the latest twist in a case long plagued by problems, including a botched initial investigation that left prosecutors with no physical evidence and forced them to rely heavily on normally prohibited hearsay.

Legal experts say what has unfolded so far has damaged the case.

"It's bad news if a judge is chastising prosecutors so much, because it tells the jury, 'I don't trust this prosecutor, I don't approve of this prosecutor,'" said Marcia Clark, Los Angeles' lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. "It's a scary place to be as prosecutor."

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

 

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