Drew Peterson’s Case has Impact on Illinois’s Hearsay Evidence Rule

The Illinois Supreme Court recently ruled that the 3rd District Appellate Court must consider an appeal in the Drew Peterson case – namely whether certain hearsay statements may be used against him. Petersen has been in custody on a $20 million bond since he was arrested in May 2009 for charges that he killed his third wife, Kathleen Savio. Prosecutors in the case want to admit statements that Savio made, but the trial court judge ruled against admitting them, despite changes that Illinois lawmakers made to the state’s hearsay rule in 2008.

Peterson, a former policeman, faces murder charges in the death of Savio after she was found dead in a bathtub in 2004 – shortly before the couples’ divorce was final. Investigators initially thought her death was accidental, but reclassified it as a homicide after Peterson’s fourth wife disappeared. Peterson is also a suspect in her disappearance.

2008 Changes to Illinois Hearsay Rule

In general, the court will not allow statements that a person made outside of court into evidence unless the person who made them is available to testify, so that the defendant can cross examine the speaker. This is because the Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to confront their accusers.

There are several exceptions to this hearsay rule, however. The Illinois legislature passed a new exception the state’s hearsay rule in 2008, in direct response to the investigation of Savio’s death and Peterson’s fourth wife’s disappearance. The law now allows statements of murder victims into evidence if the prosecution can show at a pretrial hearing by preponderance of the evidence that:

  • The defendant murdered the speaker
  • The defendant murdered the speaker to prevent the speaker from testifying against the defendant
  • There are sufficient indicators that the statements are reliable
  • The interests of justice would be served by admitting the statements

District Court’s Hearsay Ruling

Peterson was scheduled to go to trial in 2010. Prosecutors tried to get statements that Savio made admitted into evidence, claiming they were essential to the state’s case, but the judge ruled against admitting the statements – despite the changes in the law that lawmakers intended to help allow the statements to be used as evidence.

Appeal of District Court’s Hearsay Ruling

Initially, the Appellate Court ruled against the state, noting that the state missed the deadline for filing an appeal of the trial court’s decision so it did not have jurisdiction to hear the appeal. However, this decision by the Supreme Court permits the Appellate Court to decide the hearsay issue on its merits. This decision will not only impact the Drew Peterson case, but may have implications for hearsay evidence used against other criminal defendants.

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