JOLIET, Ill. — Drew Peterson's third wife told a friend a year before she was found dead in her bathtub that the former suburban Chicago police officer once broke into her home, grabbed her by the throat, pinned her down and asked a threatening question, the friend testified Thursday.
"She said that her husband said, "`Why don't you just die?'" Mary Parks told jurors, her voice quivering as she delivered more of hearsay evidence that's at the heart of the state's case.
Peterson, an ex-Bolingbrook police sergeant, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the 2004 death of his third wife, 40-year-old Kathleen Savio, who once studied nursing with Parks.
As Savio recounted the attack, she unzipped a top she was wearing to show dark red bruises on her neck, saying they were a result of Peterson's attack, Parks testified.
"She looked as if she was in shock," Parks told jurors.
She said Savio told her the incident occurred on the stairs of her suburban home the night before the women spoke around Thanksgiving in 2003.
A year later, Savio's body was found in a dry bathtub at her home – a gash on the back of her head. Her death was only reclassified from an accident to a homicide after Peterson's fourth wife, 23-year-old Stacy Peterson, vanished in 2007. Peterson, now 58, is a suspect in her disappearance but hasn't been charged.
Parks and Savio spoke again in October 2003, with Savio describing another encounter with Peterson.
"Kathy told me that her husband ... had told her that he could kill her and make her disappear," she said.
At one point, Parks began sobbing and the judge asked jurors to leave while she regained her composure.
The hearsay testimony is critical because police who investigated when Savio was found dead quickly decided it was an accident and didn't collect any physical evidence. Illinois adopted a law in the wake of Peterson's case – dubbed "Drew's Law" – that allows hearsay evidence in rare circumstances.
Peterson, who has looked on intently during testimony, suddenly beamed when his and Savio's son, Kristopher, walked into court and sat behind him to chat during a break. The 18-year-old and other Peterson children are on a witness list and cannot sit in on testimony.
During the cross-examination of Parks, defense attorney Steve Greenberg suggested Savio was paranoid, and that her descriptions of clashes with Peterson may have been exaggerated to elicit sympathy.
But Savio's friend stood her ground.
"Everything that she told me, I had no reason to doubt," Parks said.
Before the trial began, Judge James Burmila left open the possibility he could prohibit most or even all of the hearsay prosecutors wanted to enter as evidence. But in recent days, he has permitted several such statements, potentially boosting the odds of a conviction.
Thursday morning, Burmila refused a defense request to bar Parks' hearsay testimony. She went on to testify for more than four hours and was the sole witness of the day.
In contentious exchanges Thursday, Greenberg said Parks' accounts of what Savio told her have been inconsistent. He even asked Parks why she kept looking to her left at jurors as she answered questions.
Parks shot back, "Is it inappropriate for me to do that?" After Parks asked the attorney another question, Burmila admonished her, saying "Don't fence with counsel, ma'am."
Constant legal arguments about the hearsay have slowed the trial. Jurors are frequently asked to leave the courtroom so attorneys can argue over the admissibility of hearsay statements.
If Peterson is convicted, defense attorneys have said they could appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court on grounds the hearsay should have been barred.
There was some levity amid the otherwise weighty proceedings.
As the trial got under way in the morning, Burmila announced he had received a letter from an Illinois inmate who claims to have information about a link between Peterson and Abraham Lincoln's assassination.
The judge said the unnamed inmate asked him to follow up with him if he wants more details.
"I won't be communicating with him," Burmila said, prompting laughter in the courtroom.
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