JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — Drew Peterson — the crass former Illinois police officer who gained notoriety after his much-younger wife vanished in 2007 — was convicted Thursday of murdering a previous wife in a potentially precedent-setting case centered on secondhand hearsay statements.
Peterson, 58, sat stoically looking straight ahead and did not react as the judge announced jurors had found him guilty of first-degree murder in the death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio. Her relatives gasped, then fell into each other's arms and cried.
Illinois has no death penalty, and Peterson now faces a maximum 60-year prison term when sentenced Nov. 26.
Both relief and excitement showed on the faces of Savio's family members as they stepped out of the crowded courtroom. Her sister, Susan Doman, threw herself into the arms of her husband.
"Finally, finally, finally," Mitch Doman, Savio's brother-in-law, said as he and his wife cried. Seconds later, he looked up at a reporter and said with a smile, "We finally got that murdering bastard!"
The trial was the first of its kind in Illinois history, with prosecutors building their case largely on hearsay thanks to a new law, dubbed "Drew's Law," tailored to Peterson's case. That hearsay, prosecutors had said, would let his third and fourth wives "speak from their graves" through family and friends to convict Peterson.
Hearsay is any information reported by a witness that is not based on the witness' direct knowledge. Defense attorneys said its use at the trial would be central to their appeal.
According to juror Ron Supalo, it was the volume of witnesses testifying against Peterson that prompted him to cast a vote to convict him.
"I think I counted at least 10 of them with the hearsay and then the circumstantial evidence," he said.
Peterson's personality loomed large over the trial, illustrated by crowds of bystanders gathered outside the courthouse in a circuslike atmosphere, cheering as prosecutors walked by and shouting, "Loser. Loser. Loser," at defense attorneys. People driving by honked their horns.
Before his 2009 arrest, the glib, cocky Peterson seemed to taunt authorities, joking on talk shows and even suggested a "Win a Date With Drew Contest," a suggestion he modified after his arrest when he phoned a radio show from jail suggesting a "Win a Conjugal Visit With Drew Contest," all of which was enough to inspire a TV movie starring Rob Lowe.
"The whole world has been waiting for Drew Peterson to be convicted. They hate him," said defense attorney Joe Lopez, speaking to dozens of reporters outside over the booing and chants of detractors on a nearby sidewalk.
Supalo said he had little difficulty deciding that Savio's death was a homicide and not an accident as Peterson's attorneys contended and pathologists testified.
"The fact that some of the injuries were on the front, some of them were on the back," he said. "You would have had to have two accidents, essentially, and that was hard to believe. You can explain away a few of them (injuries,) but all of them, that's hard to believe."
The verdict was a vindication for Will County State's Attorney James Glasgow and his team, who gambled by putting on a case they conceded was filled with holes. Glasgow, who is running for election this year, drew cheers from the crowd outside and chants of, "Four more years!"
"He was a thug," Glasgow said of Peterson, his voice rising in indignation. "He would threaten people because he had a gun and a badge. Nobody would take him on. But we took him on, and he lost!"
The case began with a gruesome discovery.
A neighbor came across Savio's body on March 1, 2004. She was face down in her dry bathtub, her thick, black hair soaked in blood and a 2-inch gash was on the back of her head.
The drowning death of the 40-year-old aspiring nurse was initially deemed an accident — a freak slip in the tub. After Peterson's fourth wife, 23-year-old Stacy Peterson, vanished in 2007, Savio's body was exhumed, re-examined and her death reclassified as a homicide.
Drew Peterson had divorced Savio a year before her death. His motive for killing her, prosecutors said, was fear that a pending settlement, which included their $300,000 home, would wipe him out financially.