July 29, 2012
The Chicago Sun-Times
Judge's long legal career leads to Peterson trial
By: Jon Siedel
For nearly two years, Drew Peterson was a defendant without a judge.
The man originally poised to preside over his trial, Judge Stephen White, dealt a crucial blow to prosecutors in 2010 that sparked a long appeal and delayed the former Bolingbrook sergeant’s day in court.
Peterson, accused of murdering third wife Kathleen Savio, waited things out in jail. White retired.
So it wasn’t until May 4, after the appeals ended, that Peterson finally appeared in the small Joliet courtroom of Will County Associate Judge Edward Burmila. His saga has played out ever since in front of the former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney on the bench for about nine years.
Now the most high-profile trial of Burmila’s long legal career is set to begin in earnest with opening statements Tuesday.
“We’ve got a judge that truly understands criminal law,” Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow said in May after Burmila was assigned the case. “So we’re going to get a nice, fair trial.”
Lead defense attorney Joel Brodsky praised the judge that day, too. He called Burmila a “great jurist” and a “straight shooter.”
Known in Will County as an intense legal scholar, Burmila also seems to have the long fuse necessary to handle the antics associated with the Peterson case. Prosecutors stepped on a few land mines in his courtroom lately, but the atmosphere there tends to be a friendly one.
The attorneys should have a sense of how Burmila will handle the case by now. He’s set several ground rules and kept both sides on schedule. He’s warned he won’t delay the trial, and he worked late on the first day of jury selection so they wouldn’t fall behind. They finished three days early.
But Burmila also left the door open on a handful of pre-trial rulings, so it’s not clear how they’ll play out during the trial. One, considered crucial to the prosecution, again revolves around the hearsay evidence central to their appeal in 2010.
Few cases generate the tabloid sensation of the Peterson trial, but this won’t be Burmila’s first brush with publicity.
The Chicago native and DePaul University College of Law graduate joined the Will County state’s attorney’s office in 1977. He prosecuted Henry Brisbon, the so-called “I-57 Killer” who led a 1979 prison riot and once stabbed serial killer John Wayne Gacy.
He also prosecuted Milton Johnson, who killed one man in an ambush on Interstate 55 and four women in a Joliet ceramics shop in the early 1980s.
Will County voters elected Burmila to be their lead prosecutor in 1988. Glasgow bumped him out of the office four years later, and Burmila spent the next 11 years as a criminal defense attorney in Joliet and a special prosecutor.
He became an associate judge in 2003, and he’s been on Will County’s felony trial call for the last five years.
Recently, he handled the trials of a drunken driver from Steger who killed his girlfriend’s 5-year-old son in a car crash and a woman who threw a fatal but consensual punch in a $5 Crest Hill party bet.
The latter trial ended in an acquittal with a rare directed verdict — the defendant never even put on a defense. Few, if any, facts were in dispute, though. And the woman chose not to have her case heard by a jury.
Sam Amirante, a criminal defense attorney based in Cook County, said the ruling is a sign Burmila will follow the law even when it calls for unpopular decisions.
“It takes guts to do that,” Amirante said.
The Illinois Supreme Court overturned Burmila in the case of the drunk driver after he said the defense attorney could have jailhouse recordings of his defendant after the conviction. The lawyer, former Will County State’s Attorney Jeff Tomczak, was angling for a new trial. Burmila eventually denied Tomczak access to the tapes.
Peterson’s defense attorneys and prosecutors asked Burmila for several rulings since May as they prepped for Tuesday’s opening statements. Some have been definitive.
Burmila said prosecutors can’t mention the possibility that Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy, might also be dead, for example. He also said he’ll compel former Savio divorce attorney Harry Smith to testify about Savio’s misdemeanor battery charges.
In one hastily called emergency hearing in May, Burmila also ripped prosecutors when he thought they’d suggested in a sealed motion he’d had inappropriate conversations with defense attorneys. Prosecutors said they never meant to make such an claim.
But other rulings seemed open-ended. For example, Burmila said jurors may hear the testimony of Stacy’s pastor, the Rev. Neil Schori, but only after prosecutors prove it’s relevant. Defense attorneys say prosecutors will fall short of that burden.
He also denied a motion to let prosecutors show jurors the bathtub where Savio died, though he said he might reconsider the idea later.
Finally, in what was considered a blow to Peterson’s prosecutors Monday, Burmila refused to say ahead of the trial whether he’d let in some disputed hearsay statements. Prosecutors had pushed so hard for a ruling at an earlier hearing that Burmila ordered an assistant state’s attorney to sit down.
“You don’t tell me when I’m going to rule,” he said.
Clifford Zimmerman, clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern University, said there are at least two ways to read Burmila’s approach to the case so far. The judge could be hedging, he said, because of its political nature. Or he could be showing caution, waiting to see how the trial plays out before offering a ruling that could later be reversed.
“A good judge is not going to make decisions before they have to,” Zimmerman said.
So far Burmila has said he’ll let Peterson object to the hearsay statements on a case-by-case basis. Prosecutors said an appellate court ruled such statements may come into the trial. But Burmila said he’s hung up on the ruling made by Judge White in 2010.
White ruled those statements were unreliable, and Burmila said he’s not sure if he can overrule the decision made by his predecessor.
“I am not Judge White’s appellate court,” he said.