(CBS/AP) JOLIET, Ill. - A physician who treated Drew Peterson's third wife, Kathleen Savio, testified Friday at the ex-cop's murder trial that a condition she suffered from, called "cervical vertigo," would have made her feel unsteady but would not have caused her to fall.
The testimony is important because the defense maintains that Savio died in an accidental fall in a bathtub at her suburban Chicago home and that her condition may have contributed to her losing her balance.
Dr. Gene Neri told jurors that precisely because cervical vertigo makes people feel unsteady those with the condition tend to be more careful and so fall less than those without it.
"If there's one thing as adults we all hate, it's the thought of falling," he said.
Peterson, a 58-year-old former Bolingbrook police officer, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in Savio's 2004 death. Her body was found in her dry bathtub with a gash on the back of her head. Her death was reclassified from an accident to a homicide only after Peterson's fourth wife, Stacy Peterson, disappeared in 2007.
Savio was "horribly sleep deprived" and feeling stressed when Neri first saw her in 1999, the doctor said, adding that those were among the underlying causes of her condition. He said anti-anxiety medications he prescribed were helping her to sleep and reduce her stress.
"She was still cautious - but considerably better," he said.
Under cross-examination by defense attorney Darryl Goldberg, Neri conceded he last saw Savio in 2002, two years before her death, and couldn't have known how she was faring medically in the weeks and months before her death.
Through his questioning, Goldberg several times sought to keep the notion of an accidental fall in the jurors' minds.
"Someone who is in a bathtub without an anti-slip mechanism could slip and fall right?"
"They could," Neri responded.
Peterson is also a suspect in Stacy Peterson's disappearance, although he has never been charged in her case. Authorities presume she is dead, though a body has never been found.