The Free Press, Mankato, MN

February 19, 2013

Peterson murder case returns with motion for new trial


Associated Press

— Drew Peterson's defense lawyers were a united, wisecracking front during most of the former suburban Chicago police officer's 2012 murder trial, and rarely without their dark sunglasses. But by the time Peterson was found guilty of killing his third wife, the attorneys' bond was irreparably fractured.

The public feud between former lead trial counsel Joel Brodsky and colleague-turned-nemesis Steve Greenberg was taken into a courthouse Tuesday. The defense called several witnesses in a bid to bolster their contention that Peterson deserves a new trial because Brodsky botched the first trial.

If Will County Judge Edward Burmila rejects the motion for a retrial, he has said he would move on to Peterson's sentencing.

Peterson, 59, faces a maximum 60-year prison term for murdering Kathleen Savio, who was found dead in her bathtub with a gash on her head. As a convicted felon, he had to enter court Tuesday in blue prison garb and shackles — a stark contrast from the business suits the then-suspect was allowed to don for his trial.

Among those the defense called to the stand Tuesday was a law school teacher who testified that Brodsky had violated ethical norms by allegedly signing a contract to split future book and movie proceeds with Peterson years before the case even went to trial.

"It seems that this is over the line," Clifford Scott-Rudnick, a professor at Chicago's John Marshall Law School told the judge.

Cutting business deals with clients, he said, raises the danger that lawyers will act in their own business interest rather than in their client's legal interest.

The bitter acrimony between a former and a current attorney is the latest twist in the peculiar saga of the former Bolingbrook police sergeant, who gained notoriety after his much younger fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, vanished in 2007.

Disagreements among the counsel during trial are not uncommon, said Chicago-area defense attorney Gal Pissetzky, but such spats spilling into public view are.

"A new team of lawyers might accuse an old team of lawyers of making mistakes at the trial — but lawyers on the same trial team blaming each other? I've never heard of anything like this," he said. Pissetzky is not connected to the Peterson case.

The feud escalated earlier this month when Brodsky filed a defamation lawsuit against Greenberg, which claims Greenberg became "irrationally fixated and obsessed with destroying Brodsky" and held Brodsky up to "great public scorn, hatred, contempt (and) ridicule."

In an open letter to Brodsky in September, Greenberg accused him of "single-handedly" losing the trial, adding he "wafted the greatest case by ignorance, obduracy and ineptitude."

As Tuesday's hearing began, Burmila said he was obliged to ask Peterson directly if he had full confidence in the current attorneys sitting next him, including Greenberg.

"Yes, your honor," Peterson promptly replied.

Apparently satisfied with that answer, Burmila said proceedings could continue with Greenberg acting Peterson's lead attorney.

The current acrimony is in stark contrast with the beginning of the trial, when the limelight-seeking defense team faced the media horde together. Several times, they joked that Stacy Peterson — who authorities presume is dead but whose body was never found — could show up any day to take the stand.

It seemed likely Brodsky would take the stand himself at some point during the hearing that began Tuesday. If he does, he could face aggressive cross-examination by Greenberg or other erstwhile colleagues. There's even an outside chance Peterson could be asked testify.

Among the accusations against Brodsky, chief is that he was so bent on publicizing himself that he pressed Peterson into a damaging pretrial media blitz.

But one of hearing's focuses is expected to be a decision that backfired during trial — calling divorce lawyer Harry Smith to be a witness for the defense. Greenberg says that was Brodsky's decision; Brodsky says all the defense lawyers agreed on it.

Under questioning by Brodsky, Smith told jurors that Stacy Peterson had asked him a question before she vanished: Could she squeeze more money out of her husband in divorce proceedings if she threatened to tell police that he murdered Savio three years earlier?

Brodsky hoped Smith's testimony that Stacy Peterson allegedly sought to extort her husband would dent the credibility of statements she made to others that Drew Peterson threatened to kill her.

Savio's death was initially deemed an accident, a freak slip in the tub. But after Stacy Peterson vanished, Savio's body was re-examined and her death was reclassified as a homicide.

During Smith's testimony, Brodsky repeatedly stressed how Stacy Peterson seemed to sincerely believe her husband had killed Savio. Chief state's prosecutor James Glasgow called it "a gift from God," and some jurors said later Smith's testimony persuaded them to convict Drew Peterson.

Judges rarely grant retrials. When they do, it is usually because an attorney didn't make a certain argument or call a witness who might have exonerated a defendant, explained Kathleen Zellner, another Chicago-area defense attorney.

"It's usually not for something an attorney did but for what they did not do," she said.

But this case has been full of oddities since first making headlines in 2007. Peterson's trial was the first in Illinois history where prosecutors built their case on hearsay, thanks to a new law tailored specifically for the case, dubbed "Drew's Law."

Still, most legal observers agreed that the motion for a new trial is a longshot, at best.

"Nothing in this case has been usual," Pissetzky said. "But the chances for this motion to succeed are slim to none — and slim just left the building."

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Follow Michael Tarm at www.twitter.com/mtarm