JOLIET, Ill. (AP) — Forensic pathologists testified for the defense Tuesday that they believe Drew Peterson's third wife died of an accidental fall in her bathtub, countering earlier testimony from state witnesses that her 2004 death was murder.
Testifying in the fifth week of the former suburban Chicago police officer's murder trial, Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen said a gaping wound on the back of Kathleen Savio's head and bruising on her side were telling. At one point, he stood to demonstrate on his own body where Savio's wounds were located.
"These injuries are classic for a fall," said Jentzen, director of pathology at the University of Michigan medical school. "She slipped and fell, she struck the left side of her body and her head violently against the side of the tub."
A second pathologist, Dr. Vincent DiMaio, echoed that. He said the 40-year-old likely slipped for several reasons, including a slick tub surface with no rubber mat and her possible use of bath oils.
Peterson, 58, has pleaded not guilty to murdering Savio. Her death was reclassified from an accident to a homicide only after Peterson's young fourth wife, 23-year-old Stacy Peterson, vanished in 2007.
Another pathologist and a star witness for the state, Dr. Larry Blum, testified earlier in the trial that a single, fatal fall could not have caused both the gash on Savio's head and the bruises on her front.
DiMaio challenged Blum's testimony that the position of Savio's body — face down and her legs jammed up against the sides of the tub — suggested foul play. DiMaio told jurors the shape and slick sides of the tub would have caused Savio's body to slide down into the unusual position.
"This position in a tub is not unusual for people found (dead) in a tub," said DiMaio, a pathologist and editor in chief of the American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology.
Jentzen took issue with another state witness, Dr. Mary Case. She told jurors Savio had no detectable damage to her brain and therefore couldn't have been knocked unconscious.
"I disagree vehemently. ... She's wrong," Jentzen said flatly. People can lose consciousness from a concussion and their brains still show no sign of trauma, he testified.
Jentzen also challenged Blum's testimony that Savio's small, circular tub had no edges sharp enough to cause her straight-line head wound. He said the edges on the tub, however rounded, could have caused the 2-inch gash.
Savio also had no defensive wounds, such as broken fingernails or bruising on her forearms, that one would expect to see on someone who is attacked, both Jentzen and DiMaio told jurors.
That supplemented the testimony of defense witness Mary Pontarelli, a neighbor and friend of Savio's. She told jurors Monday she would have expected Savio to put up a fierce fight for her life.
"She wouldn't let someone hit her without her hitting back," she said.
In a bid to put a dent in Jentzen's testimony, prosecutor John Connor noted during cross-examination that he had testified during a pretrial hearing in 2010 that Savio had hit her head first, not her torso. Asked if it was possible Savio was murdered, Jentzen responded, "Anything is possible."
Also Tuesday, Judge Edward Burmila sustained an objection when lead prosecutor James Glasgow asked DiMaio if someone could have put a "sleeper hold" on Savio's carotid artery — causing her to pass out — then held her down under water. During its four-week case, the state never entered evidence about how Peterson might have drowned Savio.
"You have to have a legal basis for asking that question," Judge Burmila said to Glasgow, telling him not to insert scenarios about how Savio could have died into his questions.
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