JOLIET, Ill. — The judge at Drew Peterson's murder trial on Tuesday lambasted prosecutors who for the third time in as many weeks broached a subject they were told not to mention in front of jurors – again raising the possibility that the case could end with the judge letting the former police officer go free.

Judge Edward Burmila seemed unmoved by repeated apologies by an attorney for the state and said he would rule Wednesday on whether to declare a mistrial in a case beset by problems from its outset.

Peterson, a 58-year-old former police officer in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in the 2004 death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio.

Just two hours before, Burmila had told prosecutor Kathleen Patton not to ask a witness about whether Savio had sought an order of protection against Peterson in front of the jury. When she did, he told jurors to leave the room and berated the prosecutor.

"There was one thing I told you not to go into and that's exactly what you did," Burmila told her.

Investigators collected no physical evidence after Savio was found dead in a dry bathtub at her home, and authorities initially ruled that Savio accidentally drowned. But after Peterson's fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, disappeared in 2007, Savio's body was re-examined and her death was reclassified as a homicide.

Patton explained that the question was on a prepared list of questions and that she read it inadvertently.

"I'm sorry," Patton said. "It's my fault. I can't believe I did it."

During a break, Patton sat in an adjoining courtroom, her shoulders slumped forward, her face buried in her hands, shaking her head over and over. Her boss, Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow, stood a few feet away, his head down.

The error came just as the trial seemed to be going prosecutors' way in recent days, with the judge granting them permission to present hearsay evidence central to their case.

Hearsay, or statements not based on the direct knowledge of a witness, is not usually admissible in court, but Illinois passed a law in the wake of the Peterson case that allows it in certain circumstances. Prosecutors have acknowledged they have no physical evidence linking Peterson to Savio's death, so hearsay evidence about what Savio allegedly said to other people is crucial to their case.

The mistake also came as Patton was questioning one of the state's most compelling witnesses so far.

Former police officer Teresa Kernc had just told jurors about interviewing Savio in 2002 after Peterson allegedly broke into Savio's home in a SWAT uniform and repeatedly pushed her to the ground.

At one point, Savio allegedly told Peterson, "Go ahead and do what you came to do: Kill me," Kernc testified.

"He said, `Where do you want it?' And she said, `In the head.'" Kernc testified.

Peterson then allegedly told Savio to turn her head, which Savio did, Kernc said, based on what Savio told her.

"And then he said, `I can't kill you,'" she told jurors. Peterson then threw a garage opener to the ground and left.

Shortly after Kernc finished telling that story, Patton turned and asked, "Did she tell you she wanted to get an order of protection?"

The defense objected to Patton's question, and the judge asked jurors to leave the room.

Savio hadn't asked for such an order at that point and the judge would have regarded the subject as creating a bias against Peterson, a Chicago defense attorney not connected with the case explained.

"It can affect a jury unfairly because it's a signal that he is a bad, violent person," attorney Gal Pissetzky explained,

Defense attorneys asked not only for a mistrial but for a "mistrial with prejudice," meaning Peterson could be set free and never be charged again with Savio's murder. Declaring a mistrial with prejudice is a rare judicial step. Burmila could also declare a more standard mistrial, meaning Peterson would be retried later.

The judge could also instruct the jury to disregard what the prosecutor said. If he takes that route, it could still signal to jurors that prosecutors have – again – messed up, potentially influencing their decision during deliberations.

Defense attorney Joel Brodsky cited other times prosecutors broached prohibited subjects, including when Glasgow – just 10 minutes into his opening statement – referred to an accusation that Peterson once tried to hire a hit man.

"It is an avalanche of prejudicial, illegal evidence that is polluting this jury," he said. "To have this many ... errors, how can the defendant get a fair trial?"

Peterson is a suspect in the disappearance of his fourth wife, who is presumed dead but whose body has never been found. He has never been charged in that case.

Defense attorneys not connected to the Peterson case expressed disbelief that prosecutors have made so many mistakes.

"It's, at minimum, sloppy," said Sam Adam, Jr., who represented imprisoned former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich at his first corruption trial.

___

Follow Michael Tarm at http://www.twitter.com/mtarm

Earlier on HuffPost:


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  • Marcia Savio, Nicholas Savio

    Marcia Savio, step-mother of Kathleen Savio cries outside the Will County Courthouse after word that former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson was found guilty of murdering his third wife Kathleen Savio Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, in Joliet, Ill. Marcia Savio is accompanied by Kathleen Savio's half-brother Nicholas Savio. Jurors convicted Peterson of murdering his third wife Thursday, capping a sensational, five-year legal saga that began after the swaggering former Illinois police officer's fourth wife vanished. Peterson, 58, faces a maximum 60-year prison term when sentenced. Illinois has no death penalty. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • Joel Brodsky

    Joel Brodsky, defense attorney for former Bolingbrook, Ill. police officer Drew Peterson, speaks outside the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Ill., Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, after a jury convicted Peterson of murdering his wife Kathleen Savio. Jurors convicted Drew Peterson of murdering his third wife Thursday, capping a sensational, five-year legal saga that began after the swaggering former Illinois police officer's fourth wife vanished. Peterson, 58, faces a maximum 60-year prison term when sentenced. Illinois has no death penalty. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • James Glasgow

    Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow, second from right, leads his prosecution team outside the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Ill., Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, after a jury convicted former Bolingbrook, Ill., police officer Drew Peterson of murdering his wife, Kathleen Savio. Jurors convicted Peterson of murdering his third wife Thursday, capping a sensational, five-year legal saga that began after the swaggering former Illinois police officer's fourth wife vanished. Peterson, 58, faces a maximum 60-year prison term when sentenced. Illinois has no death penalty. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • Joel Brodsky, Steven Greenberg

    Attorneys for former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson, Joel Brodsky and Steven Greenberg, confer outside the Will County Courthouse during the second day of jury deliberations in Peterson's murder trial, Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, in Joliet, Ill. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

  • Kathleen Savio

    FILE - This Nov. 8, 2007 file photo taken from video shows the grave site of Kathleen Savio at the Queen of Heaven Catholic Cemetery in Hillside, Ill. Savio was the third wife of former Bolingbrook, Ill., police officer Drew Peterson who was convicted of her murder Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, at the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Ill. (AP Photo/Mark Carlson, File)

  • Mitch Doman

    Mitch Doman, brother-in-law of Kathleen Savio, holds a photo button of late Savio outside the Will County Courthouse during the second day of jury deliberations in former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson's murder trial, Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, in Joliet, Ill. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

  • Bobby Hauert

    Bobby Hauert, of Elwood, Ill., walks the 'Will County Courthouse wearing a Will County, Murder Capitol of the World' shirt during the second day of jury deliberations in former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson's murder trial, Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, in Joliet, Ill. Hauert said his sister Cheryl Nugent was murdered in Will County in 1996. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

  • Nicholas Savio

    NIcholas Savio, half-brother of Kathleen Savio speaks to the media outside the Will County Courthouse during the second day of jury deliberations in former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson's murder trial, Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, in Joliet, Ill. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

  • Jeff Ruby, Stephanie Freitage

    Jeff Ruby and Stephanie Freitage embrace outside the Will County Courthouse after word spread that former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson was found guilty of murdering his third wife Kathleen Savio Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012, in Joliet, Ill. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • Pam Bosco

    Pam Bosco, friend of Drew Peterson's missing fourth wife Stacy Peterson walks from the Will County Courthouse after the first day of jury deliberations in Peterson's murder trial, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, in Joliet, Ill. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • James Glasgow

    Will County States Attorney James Glasgow walks from the Will County Courthouse during the first day of jury deliberations in former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson's murder trial, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, in Joliet, Ill. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

  • Joel Brodsky

    Joel Brodsky attorney for Former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson, talks to the media outside the Will County Courthouse during the first day of jury deliberations in Peterson's murder trial, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012, in Joliet, Ill. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

  • Joel Brodsky, Joe Lopez

    Joel Brodsky left, and Joe Lopez, right, defense attorneys for former Bolingbrook, Ill., police officer Drew Peterson, speak to the media outside the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Ill., Monday, Aug. 27, 2012, during a break in Peterson's murder trial. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

  • Drew Peterson

    FILE - In this file photo taken Thursday, March 20, 2010 in Bolingbrook, Ill., Drew Peterson, who is on trial for the murder of his third wife Kathleen Savio in 2004, stands in the bedroom of the home from where his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, disappeared from in 2007. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • James Glasgow

    FILE - In this file photo taken Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012 in Joliet, Ill., Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow, far right, leaves the Will County Courthouse with his prosecution team as the Drew Peterson murder trial continues. (AP Photo/M Spencer Green, File)

  • Edward Burmila

    Judge Edward Burmila enters the Will County Courthouse as Drew Peterson's murder trial continues, Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012, in Joliet, Ill. (AP Photo/M Spencer Green)

  • Kathleen Patton, James Glasgow

    Will County Assistant State's Attorney Kathleen Patton, left, leaves the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Ill., with Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow, right, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012, after the judge in the murder trial of former Bolingbrook, Ill., police officer Drew Peterson said he would would announce his decision on a mistrial motion Wednesday morning. Burmila is again considering a possible mistrial after another blunder from prosecutors in the former police officer's trial. Peterson is accused in the 2004 death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio. The judge decided to consider a mistrial after prosecutors violated his order from earlier Tuesday that they not ask questions in front of the jury about whether Savio had sought an order of protection against the former suburban Chicago police officer. Patton apologized to the judge. She explained that the barred question was on a prepared list and she read it inadvertently. Later Patton could be seen in an adjoining room, her shoulders slumped and her face buried in her hands. (AP Photo/M Spencer Green)

  • Steven Greenberg

    Defense attorney Steven Greenberg enters the Will County Courthouse as Drew Peterson's murder trial continues, Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2012, in Joliet, Ill. Lawyers for Peterson withdrew a motion for a mistrial today, allowing the former Illinois police officer's murder trial to go ahead. The defense attorneys' move follows several blunders by prosecutors seeking to prove that the 58-year-old Peterson killed his third wife, Kathleen Savio, in 2004. He's also a suspect in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, but never has been charged in her case. (AP Photo/M Spencer Green)

  • Drew Peterson, James Glasgow, Edwward Burmila

    In this courtroom sketch, Drew Peterson, foreground, looks on, as Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow gives his opening statement before Judge Edward Burmila and jurors, Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in Joliet, Ill., in Peterson's murder trial. Peterson is charged in the 2004 death of his third wife Kathleen Savio. (AP Photo/Tom Gianni)

  • Pam Bosco, Drew Peterson

    Stacy Peterson family spokesperson Pam Bosco speaks to the media outside the Will County Courthouse after the second day of the murder trial of Drew Peterson, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012 in Joliet, Ill.. Peterson, 58, is charged with killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio, in 2004. Her body was found in a dry bathtub in her home, her hair soaked with blood. He is also a suspect in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

  • Drew Peterson, Joe Lopez, Mary Pontarelli,

    In this courtroom sketch, Drew Peterson, foreground left, looks on as defense attorney Joe Lopez cross examines Kathleen Savio's neighbor, Mary Pontarelli, as they view a photo of Savio's lifeless body in the tub of her home, Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in Joliet, Ill., during the first day of Drew Peterson's murder trial. Peterson is charged in the 2004 death of Savio, his third wife. (AP Photo/Tom Gianni)

  • Joel Broadsky, Lisa Lopez, Joe Lopez,

    Attorneys for Drew Peterson, Joel Brodsky, second from left, Lisa Lopez, third from left, and Joe Lopez, fourth from left, return from lunch to the Will County Courthouse, Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in Joliet, Ill., after giving opening statements in Peterson's murder trial. Peterson, a former Bolingbrook, Ill., police officer, is charged in the 2004 death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • Henry Savio, Marcia Savio

    Henry and Marcia Savio, father and stepmother of Kathleen Savio enter the Will County Courthouse, Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in Joliet, Ill. for opening statements in former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson's murder trial. Peterson is charged in the 2004 death of his third wife Kathleen Savio. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • James Glasgow, Drew Peterson

    Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow leaves the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Ill. after the second day of the murder trial of Drew Peterson. Peterson, 58, is charged with killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio, in 2004. Her body was found in a dry bathtub in her home, her hair soaked with blood. He is also a suspect in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson. (AP Photo/Paul Beaty)

  • Drew Peterson, Joel Brodsky, Edward Burmila

    In this courtroom sketch, Drew Peterson, foreground, looks on, his defense attorney Joel Brodsky gives his opening statement before Judge Edward Burmila and jurors, Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in Joliet, Ill., in Peterson's murder trial. Peterson is charged in the 2004 death of his third wife Kathleen Savio. (AP Photo/Tom Gianni)

  • Drew Peterson, Lacy Peterson, Anthony Peterson, Christopher Peterson, Thomas Peterson.

    In this March 20, 2008 file photo, former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson poses with his children daughter Lacy, 3, Anthony, 4, left, Christopher, 13, right, and Thomas, 15, at their home in Bolingbrook, Ill. Christopher and Thomas were from Peterson's marriage to his third wife, Kathleen Savio. Lacy and Anthony were from his marriage to fourth wife, Stacy Peterson. Stacy adopted Savio's children after Savio's death in 2004. Opening statements are slated for Tuesday, July 31, 2012, in the much-anticipated trial of Drew Peterson, who was charged with the 2004 murder of Savio, only after his 23-year-old fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, vanished without a trace in 2007. Today, there's no hint of animosity between the two families. They share not only grief but a common goal _ of seeing Drew Peterson convicted and sent away to prison for life. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

  • FILE - In this undated file photo provided by the Stacy Peterson family, Stacy Peterson, 23, right, of Bolingbrook, Ill., is seen with her younger sister Cassandra Cales. Peterson, the wife of Drew Peterson, a sergeant with the Bolingbrook Police Department, was reported missing Oct. 29, 2007. On Tuesday, July 31, 2012, opening statements are slated in the much-anticipated trial of the 58-year-old Peterson, who was charged with the 2004 murder of his 40-year-old third wife, Kathleen Savio, only after his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, vanished without a trace in 2007. Many Savio family members are potential witnesses and so can't speak publicly about the case or sit in on testimony. But Cales, one of the most outspoken members of Stacy Peterson's family, said she will be at the Will County courtroom as the trial starts in earnest. (AP Photo/Courtesy the Stacy Peterson Family)

  • BOLINGBROOK, IL - NOVEMBER 12: A flyer taped to the window of a car advertises that a search continues for Stacy Peterson, the wife of Bolingbrook, Illinois police officer Drew Peterson who disappeared about two weeks ago November 12, 2007 in Bolingbrook, Illinois. Drew Peterson, who claims Stacy, his fourth wife, ran off with another man has been named as a suspect in her disappearance. Since the disappearance police have also reopened an investigation into the death of Drew's third wife who reportedly died an accidental death in her bathtub. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • James Glasgow, Joel Brodsky, Drew Peterson, Edward Burmila

  • In this May 7, 2009 file booking photo provided by the Will County Sheriff's office in Joliet, Ill., former Bolingbrook, Ill., police sergeant Drew Peterson is shown. Peterson was indicted and charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the drowning death of his former wife Kathleen Savio who was found dead in an empty bathtub in 2004. Jury selection is scheduled to begin in his trial Monday, July 23, 2012. (AP Photo/Will County Sheriff's Office, File)

  • Former Bolingbrook, Illinois police officer Drew Peterson is escorted by correctional officiers from the Will County Courthouse after his arraignment on charges that he murdered of his third wife Kathleen Savio May 18, 2009 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Former Bolllingbrook, Illinois police officer Drew Peterson leaves the Will County Jail after posting bail for a felony weapons charge May 21, 2008 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • This undated file photo provided by her family shows Stacy Peterson, 23, of Bolingbrook, Ill., and her husband, Drew Peterson, 53, a police officer with the Bolingbrook Police Department. Drew Peterson, long suspected in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy, was charged with murdering his third wife, Kathleen Savio, whose 2004 death had been ruled accidental before authorities revisited it once Stacy Peterson vanished. Jury selection in his murder trial begins Monday, July 23, 2012, at the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Ill. (AP Photo/Family of Stacy Peterson, File)

  • James Glasgow

    Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow leaves court during a lunch break on the first day of jury selection in former Bolingbrook, Ill., police officer Drew Peterson's murder trial, Monday, July 23, 2012, in Joliet, Ill. Peterson, 58, is charged with killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio, in 2004. Her body was found in a dry bathtub in her home, her hair soaked with blood. He is also a suspect in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • Joel Brodsky

    Joel Brodksy, attorney for former Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson, leaves court for lunch during the first day of jury selection in Peterson's murder trial, Monday, July 23, 2012, in Joliet, Ill. Peterson, 58, is charged with killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio, in 2004. Her body was found in a dry bathtub in her home, her hair soaked with blood. The ex-Bolingbrook police sergeant is also a suspect in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

  • In this Nov. 26, 2007 file photo, former Bolingbrook police sergeant Drew Peterson talks to the media as he leaves his home in Bolingbrook, Ill. Peterson was indicted in May 2009 on a murder charge in the death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio. Jury selection is scheduled to begin in his trial Monday, July 23, 2012, at the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Ill. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

  • This 2009 sketch of Bolingbrook police officer Drew Peterson by courtroom artist Carol Renaud is seen at her Chicago home on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Carol Renaud)

  • In this May 8, 2009 file photo, former Bolingbrook, Ill., police sergeant Drew Peterson arrives at the Will County Courthouse in Joliet, Ill., for his arraignment on charges of first-degree murder in the 2004 death of his former wife Kathleen Savio. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)

  • Signs left by friends and family of missing Bolingbrook, Illinois woman Stacy Peterson sit on the lawn furniture in front of the home Stacy shared with her husband former Bolingbrook police Sgt. Drew Peterson during a vigil November 17, 2007 in Bolingbrook, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Friends and family of missing Bolingbrook, Illinois woman Stacy Peterson, hold a vigil in front of the home Stacy shared with her husband former Bolingbrook police Sgt. Drew Peterson November 17, 2007 in Bolingbrook, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • BOLINGBROOK, IL - NOVEMBER 01: Bolingbrook, Illinois police Sgt. Drew Peterson, the husband of Stacy Peterson, stands in front of a neighbor's home as Illinois State Police search for evidence at his home November 1, 2007 in Bollingbrook, Illinois. Stacy, Peterson's fourth wife, was recently reported missing. Since her disappearance police have reopened an investigation into the death of Peterson's third wife who reportedly drowned in a bathtub. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

  • Former Bolingbrook, Illinois police officer Drew Peterson (R) leaves the Will County Jail with his attorney Joel Brodsky after posting bail for a felony weapons charge May 21, 2008 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)