- Associated Press - Thursday, August 2, 2012

JOLIET, Ill. — A judge stopped short of declaring a mistrial in Drew Peterson’s murder case on Thursday, chiding prosecutors for entering inadmissible evidence and criticizing them in front of the jury, but concluding the former police officer can still get a fair trial.

Testimony resumed with paramedics and a locksmith shortly after the in-court legal drama that came close to ending the high-profile trial before it had barely begun.

Judge Edward Burmila’s decision not to grant a mistrial followed a series of blunders by prosecutors, who are seeking to prove the 58-year-old Mr. Peterson killed his third wife, Kathleen Savio, whose body was found in a dry bathtub in 2004. He also is a suspect in the 2007 disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, but has never been charged in her case.

Judge Burmila made it clear he seriously entertained the possibility of effectively ending the trial. He wondered aloud Wednesday if a witness’s comment had made Mr. Peterson appear menacing in jurors’ eyes, undermining his shot at a fair trial. But Thursday, Judge Burmila said ending the trial was unnecessary.

“The court believes that the defendant’s ability to receive a fair trial is not extinguished at this time,” he said.

This most recent legal hurdle is the latest of many in a saga that stretches back nearly a decade. A botched initial investigation, for instance, left prosecutors with no physical evidence and forced them to rely heavily on normally prohibited hearsay.

Shortly after Judge Burmila’s ruling, testimony continued with prosecutors calling a paramedic to the stand in a bid to prove Mr. Peterson staged a scene, making it look like Mrs. Savio died in a bathroom accident.

Prosecutors have suggested Mr. Peterson placed the towel there after paramedics arrived to ensure it looked like she had been taking a bath. Paramedic Louis Oleszkiewicz commented on an investigation photo of the bathroom, shown on a courtroom screen: “This towel — right there — was not there that evening,” he said.

A locksmith who opened the door of Mrs. Savio’s home that night at Mr. Peterson’s request also took the stand. He said he left the scene after he heard a scream — which was the sound of a neighbor who had just discovered Mrs. Savio’s body inside.

“I got the heck out of Dodge,” he said. “I just sorta figured — it wasn’t good. … You don’t want the locksmith around, trust me.”

Mr. Peterson, who was a police officer in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in Mrs. Savio’s death. He also has said he wasn’t responsible for his fourth wife’s disappearance.

The trial looked like it might be doomed on Wednesday. A furious Judge Burmila admonished prosecutors after Thomas Pontarelli, a former neighbor of Mrs. Savio’s, began testifying about finding a .38-caliber bullet on his driveway. Mr. Pontarelli hinted that Mr. Peterson may have planted it to intimidate him.

On Thursday, Judge Burmila told jurors to disregard Mr. Pontarelli’s statement. And, in a rarity for trials, the judge signaled to jurors that the state had messed up, telling them a prosecutor had asked a question “she knew would elicit an inadmissible response.”