JOLIET, Ill. (AP) - A pathologist hired by a former suburban Chicago police sergeant's attorneys testified Wednesday that the death of Drew Peterson's third wife was accidental and not a homicide as ruled three years later after her body was exhumed.
In the clearest signal yet of the battle attorneys will engage in over the death of Kathleen Savio, Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen said "it is my opinion that it was an accident." Jentzen, a former chief medical examiner in Milwaukee who teaches at the University of Michigan, said he did not conduct an autopsy on Savio's body but relied on previous autopsies, crime scene photographs, police reports and other information.
Savio's death was ruled accidental after her body was found in a dry bathtub in 2004. Jentzen said the evidence clearly points to an accident - from the absence of any defensive wounds on Savio's body to the condition of the bathroom when her body was found. He said the bathroom appeared normal, saying Savio's glasses were folded and there was no sign of an intruder.
The pathologist said he believes Savio may have simply slipped or fainted in the tub. He also pointed to medical records that show she had a heart murmur, suggesting her heart may have stopped and caused her to slam the back of her head against a hard object and then fall into the tub and drown. Whatever happened, "she suffered a blunt force injury and that could have rendered her unconscious," Jentzen said.
Other witnesses have testified that Savio would never have bathed wearing jewelry. Jentzen said the fact that she was wearing what he called a "delicate" necklace strongly suggested to him that she didn't struggle with an attacker.
Jentzen, who has conducted thousands of autopsies, said he would have expected such a necklace to have somehow been damaged in an attack. "I've seen it numerous times," he said.
Jentzen also said he believes many of the other bruises on Savio's body could have happened when she fell. Defense attorneys had planned to call 20 witnesses in the pretrial hearing to determine what hearsay evidence a judge might allow during Peterson's murder trial. Defense attorney Joel Brodsky said Wednesday that was not necessary because testimony from those witnesses, including police officers, was already in reports accepted by prosecutors. Prosecutors plan to call a third pathologist Friday, then closing arguments will follow.
Peterson has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in Savio's death. Peterson's fourth wife, Stacy, disappeared in 2007. Peterson has not been charged in the disappearance but police say he is a suspect. It was after Stacy Peterson went missing that investigators exhumed Savio's body and determined her death was a homicide. Before the hearing began Wednesday, Brodsky said he didn't know exactly when Judge Stephen White would decide if any of the prosecution's 15 hearsay statements would be allowed.
Brodsky said the judge plans to seal his decision to protect the jury pool from pretrial publicity. Hearsay, or statements not based on the direct knowledge of a witness, is usually not admissible in court. Illinois judges can however allow it in murder trials if prosecutors prove a defendant may have killed a witness to prevent him or her from testifying.
There's little available forensic evidence in Savio's case, so prosecutors are expected to rely on statements Savio allegedly made to others saying she feared Peterson could kill her.