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Updated 05/17/12 – 4:18 p.m.
JOLIET, Ill. (CBS) After nearly two years of delays, Drew Peterson is set to go on trial in two months for the murder of his third wife, Kathleen Savio.
Will County Judge Edward Burmila, who was newly appointed to the case after the original trial judge retired while the case was tied up in appeals, set jury selection to begin on July 23, with opening statements set for July 30.
Peterson, a former Bolingbrook police sergeant, was originally scheduled to go on trial in July 2010, but the case was delayed while prosecutors and defense attorneys wrangled at the appeals court level over whether hearsay statements made by Savio and Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, could be used at trial.
Defense attorneys dropped their appeals last month, though have vowed to continue seeking to bar those statements from being heard at trial through pretrial motions.
Meantime, Burmila has ruled prosecutors cannot tell the jury in the Savio case that Stacy might be dead, too. But prosecution witnesses will be allowed to tell jurors they came forward with information about Savio’s death after several years, because Stacy disappeared.
WBBM Newsradio’s Mike Krauser reports defense attorney Steve Greenberg argued during a hearing on Thursday that Stacy’s disappearance is irrelevant, and the jury doesn’t need to hear about that, or that Savio’s body was exhumed for a new autopsy only after Stacy went missing in 2007, and witnesses came forward implicating Drew Peterson in Savio’s death in 2004.
LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio’s Mike Krauser reports
Savio’s death was first ruled an accidental drowning, but after Stacy Peterson disappeared, authorities exhumed Savio’s body and a new autopsy ruled her death was a homicide. Prosecutors have said Drew Peterson killed Savio to prevent her from testifying against him in divorce proceedings.
Prosecutor Kathy Patton said Thursday it would be ridiculous not to tell the jury in the upcoming murder trial why Stacy is not here to testify herself, if the jury is going to hear about alleged statements she made to others.
Peterson, 58, was seated in the jury box during the hearing, dressed in a blue jail jumpsuit and wearing shackles.
When Greenberg asked Peterson “how are you?” he responded, “I’m in jail.”
Burmila ruled prosecutors may not mention that Stacy is missing and presumed dead, or that Drew Peterson is suspected of being involved. However, prosecutors can ask witnesses why they waited to come forward with information about Savio’s death, which was originally ruled an accident.
The judge heard a number of other defense motions, including one seeking to deal with what the defense called “innuendo.”
Greenberg argued prosecutors are trying to introduce a lot of ambiguous evidence, when he said they have no evidence placing Peterson at Savio’s home; nothing suggesting there was a break-in, or that she let him in; and no evidence that he killed her.
“They’re trying to prove he’s guilty by saying he was getting divorced, so he did it,” Greenberg said. He said that argument might be perfectly logical, but it’s not supported by the evidence.
“What about all this crap?” he said.
The judge denied that motion, saying the defense was asking for a trial ahead of the actual murder trial, and said the defense can ask him for a directed verdict of acquittal after the prosecution puts on its case.
Greenberg also argued that prosecutors should not be allowed to argue that Rev. Neil Schori, a prosecution witness, is beyond reproach because he is a minister.
Schori is expected to testify Stacy told him Drew Peterson coached her to lie to police when questioned about Savio’s death. Schori has said Stacy told him Drew Peterson admitted he killed Savio, and Stacy feared she was next.
The judge agreed, saying prosecutors cannot say Schori is more credible than any other witness because of his profession.
But Burmila said Schori’s testimony presents an unusual challenge for the jury, as they will need to determine not only whether he is telling the truth, but whether Stacy was telling the truth when she talked to him.
Peterson has not been charged in Stacy’s disappearance, but Illinois State Police believe she is dead, and have named Peterson a person of interest.
Peterson has been held in protective custody while in jail since 2009, meaning he has no contact with other prisoners. He can only visit with immediate family members and his attorneys.