The Drew Peterson case appears far from over.
The first step likely delivers the murder conviction to a panel of three justices in the Illinois Appellate Court, where defendants face an uphill battle when there's overwhelming evidence of guilt.
State appellate courts are more likely to reverse convictions and grant new trials when cases feature closely-balanced evidence.
"The reason you know that it's closely balanced is, take out the hearsay, he's not even indicted," said Samuel E. Adam, a criminal defense attorney at Henderson, Adam LLC.
"This is not what I would call 'overwhelming evidence.' The dispute was, 'Was this a homicide?' … There was a dispute whether this woman was killed by criminal means."
A Will County jury on Thursday convicted Peterson, a former Bolingbrook police sergeant, of killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio. Investigators deemed Savio's death an accidental slip in the tub in 2004 but exhumed her body and called it a homicide after Peterson's fourth wife vanished in 2007.
In an appeal, Peterson could question his trial lawyer's decision to call a divorce lawyer as a witness who mentioned his discussion with Peterson's fourth wife that linked Peterson to Savio's death. On these issues, appellate courts typically review the defense lawyer's strategy before ruling on an ineffective assistance of counsel claim.
Peterson also could allege prosecutorial errors tainted the trial when jurors heard prosecutors talk about a few subjects that Will County Associate Judge Edward A. Burmila Jr. ruled inadmissible.
Each time, Burmila advised the jury to disregard the prosecutors' statements. Facing these scenarios, appellate panels often review the evidence and decide whether the prosecution committed an error that the judge couldn't fix.
Ruling an error "harmless" is "easy to say when you have a murder weapon, six witnesses and a confession," said Paul Logli, a retired lawyer who spent 21 years as Winnebago County state's attorney and served on the circuit court bench in Rockford.
"In this case, where you have a lack of direct evidence and it's all circumstantial, that might create problems for the prosecution."
Statistics released last week show that the 3rd District Appellate Court issued 379 rulings in criminal cases last year. Of those, the court granted nine outright reversals; 44 reversals that remanded the case to the trial court; and 20 rulings that either vacated a conviction or remanded the case or did both.
So, 73 of those 379 rulings — about 19 percent — generated positive results for defendants.
The numbers also reveal that defendants in the 3rd District Appellate Court, which takes cases from Will County, found slightly greater success compared to statewide results. Of the 2,780 criminal case rulings that all Illinois appellate panels issued last year, 397 — or about 14 percent of — defendants received favorable rulings.
Adam cautioned against using statistics to predict Peterson's future.
"Statistics mean nothing, especially in this case," Adam said. "This case is a hot case. The appellate court is going to do what they do knowing that the world is watching. So statistics are thrown out when it comes to the Drew Peterson case."
Each appellate case contains its own unique facts about the defendant, victim, judge, jury, lawyers, witnesses, crime, evidence and applicable statutes.
No physical evidence or witness testimony placed Peterson at the scene.
The hearsay statements entered the trial due to state lawmakers' approval in 2008 of what's dubbed "Drew's Law" to let hearsay enter trials in certain circumstances.
The hearsay involved alleged statements that Savio — and Peterson's fourth wife, Stacy — made to others. The statements attributed to Savio dealt with death threats; Stacy's alleged statements implicated Peterson in Savio's death.
And the hearsay evidence almost didn't make it into the trial until the 3rd District Appellate Court in April gave Burmila discretion to allow it.
Whatever happens in the state appellate court, the losing party may hope that the Illinois Supreme Court will take the case.
Leonard L. Cavise, a professor of evidence and criminal procedure at DePaul University College of Law, said he doesn't think Peterson will find appellate success in the state court system.
"But there may be some shot in the U.S. Supreme Court," said Cavise, adding that Peterson may challenge "Drew's Law" and say it violates the Sixth Amendment's right to confront witnesses.
"The confrontation cases over the last 10 years have been pretty firm on insisting on the right to confrontation and throwing out hearsay exceptions that don't measure up," Cavise said.
Efforts to reach Joel A. Brodsky, one of Peterson's defense lawyers, and Will County State's Attorney James W. Glasgow were unsuccessful this morning.
If Peterson hopes the hearsay statements will pave a path to appellate success, Logli, the former prosecutor and judge, said Will County prosecutors don't need to worry about the state appellate court granting a new trial on that issue.
"The good news from the prosecution's standpoint is … the 3rd District has already ruled on the hearsay," Logli said. "You're probably solid on direct appeal to the 3rd District.
"If there's going to be a reversal, it will be at the Illinois Supreme Court or U.S. Supreme Court. By the time this winds its way through the system, Drew Peterson will be in jail for a while."