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Drew Peterson murder trial: Defense attorneys present case

In this May 8, 2009 file photo, former police officer Drew Peterson leaves the Will County Courthouse after his arraignment on charges of first-degree murder in the 2004 death of his third wife, Kathleen Savio File,AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

(CBS/AP) JOLIET, Ill. - Attorneys for Drew Peterson began presenting their defense Monday, trying to counter the state's portrayal of the former suburban Chicago police officer as a bully who was capable of slaying his third wife.

Prosecutors rested their four-week case on Monday by presenting a dramatic letter from alleged victim Kathleen Savio, in which she wrote that she feared her husband would kill her.

Peterson, now 58, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in Savio's 2004 death. Savio's death was initially considered accidental, but her body was exhumed and her death declared a homicide after Peterson's fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, went missing in 2007.

In a 2002 letter to a Will County prosecutor, written during divorce the couple's divorce proceedings, Savio accused her estranged husband of breaking into her house and putting a knife to her throat.

"He asked me several times if I was afraid," the letter read. "I started to panic. He pulled out his knife that he kept around his leg and brought it to my neck. I thought I'd never see my boys again."

Savio, 40, was found dead two years later in her bathtub with a gash on the back of her head.

If Drew Peterson is convicted, he faces a maximum 60-year prison term.

The defense's first witness was Mary Pontarelli, a neighbor and close friend of Savio's. Pontarelli also testified for the state about finding Savio's body. She conceded Monday she never saw Peterson strike Savio or even raise his voice at her.

"He was very respectful ... a good neighbor," Pontarelli said. "He's a funny guy, he makes jokes about things - not in a mean way."

Pontarelli also told jurors Savio would have fought back if attacked. The defense said the absence of defensive wounds on Savio bolstered their contention that she died accidentally.

"She's tough," Pontarelli said. "She wouldn't let someone hit her without her hitting back."

Rob Sud, a police officer who went to Savio's house the night her body was found, also testified Monday. He said he saw nothing in the house to raise his suspicions that her death was anything but accidental.

After prosecutors rested Monday morning, Judge Edward Burmila rejected a defense request that he acquit Peterson before the case goes to jurors.

Without any physical evidence following a botched initial investigation, prosecutors had to rely heavily on hearsay evidence, mostly comments that Savio made before she died and that Stacy Peterson made before she vanished.

Peterson attorney Joel Brodsky told reporters Monday that the defense intends to call to the stand the eldest of Savio's and Peterson's two sons, Tom Peterson, to "tell what he knows about his father's innocence." The recent high school graduate is expected to testify Wednesday.

Defense attorneys also told the judge they want to put Savio's divorce lawyer, Harry Smith, on the stand. Judge Burmila will decide Tuesday if Smith will be allowed to say Stacy Peterson called him in 2007 to ask if she could squeeze Drew Peterson for money by threatening to tell police he killed Savio.

Complete coverage of the Drew Peterson case on Crimesider

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