Our condolences to the family of Dr. Bryan Mitchell.
Pathologist in Drew Peterson case dies
Judge to issue sealed hearsay ruling next week
By Christy Gutowski | Daily Herald Staff
Published: 3/13/2010 12:01 AM
The forensic pathologist who conducted the initial autopsy on Drew Peterson’s third wife, whose 2004 drowning was ruled accidental, died this week – three months before the start of the former Bolingbrook sergeant’s trial on charges he murdered Kathleen Savio.
Dr. Bryan R. Mitchell died Wednesday after a battle with cancer. He was 44.
Meanwhile, in a sealed written ruling, Will County Judge Stephen White is expected to tell lawyers next week whether more than one dozen hearsay statements prosecutors want to use as evidence against Peterson are reliable enough to be admitted during his upcoming trial.
In a written statement, Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow on Friday called Mitchell a “consummate professional” whose work aided in the prosecution of many murder cases in the past decade. Mitchell conducted high-profile autopsies in several jurisdictions, including Kane County.
But it was his March 2, 2004, autopsy on Kathleen Savio that garnered the most attention.
In his report, Mitchell wrote a 1-inch gash on the scalp of the 40-year-old Bolingbrook woman, who drowned in her bathtub, may have been caused by a slip or fall. He also noted her hair was soaked with blood and she had several small abrasions on her body.
A Will County coroner’s jury later declared the death “accidental,” after an Illinois State Police official testified there was no sign of foul play, though Savio was in the midst of a bitter divorce battle with Peterson and often accused him of being abusive and threatening.
Authorities exhumed Savio’s body in November 2007 after Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy, 23, vanished. The pathologists who conducted the second and third autopsies ruled Savio’s death a homicide.
At a recent pretrial hearing, Dr. Larry Blum testified that in 30 years of conducting more than 9,230 autopsies, he’d never seen an otherwise healthy adult who was not under the influence of alcohol or drugs die such an accidental death.
Blum gathered more samples, performed more tests – including a standard rape kit not done in the first autopsy – and examined the bathtub where Savio died. He said the position of Savio’s body in the tub made it “highly, highly unlikely” she drowned accidentally. Blum also found that Savio’s body was in the tub when her head wound was inflicted, based on the flow of the blood.
Still, Blum said: “Dr. Mitchell did a fine autopsy. We weren’t out to discredit him.”
The defense team, led by attorney Joel Brodsky, planned to call Mitchell during the recent hearsay hearing, but the pathologist was being treated at the Mayo Clinic.
Jury selection in Peterson’s trial begins June 14. Prosecutors are barred from using Mitchell’s grand jury testimony, since he was not subject to cross examination during the closed-door proceeding, but they are allowed to introduce his autopsy report – which the defense team argues bolsters its case.
“We actually welcome the introduction of Dr. Mitchell’s autopsy report into evidence because he found the cut on the back of her head was consistent with a slip and fall,” Brodsky said. “Obviously, (Mitchell’s death) presents an issue.
Juries like to hear from witnesses. But the report is black and white.”
Judge White’s written ruling regarding the hearsay statements will become public after jury selection is complete, he said. Peterson, 56, maintains his innocence in Savio’s death. He has not been charged with any wrongdoing in Stacy’s 2007 disappearance.