By Stacy St. Clair, Steve Schmadeke and Matthew Walberg
CHICAGO (Chicago Tribune) — They arrived in Joliet, Ill., bursting with bravado and bluster, promising an acquittal for the ages.
Five weeks later, Drew Peterson’s Chicago-based defense team left town, thoroughly defeated, somewhat fractured and with their client facing up to 60 years in prison for killing his third wife.
The odds rarely favor the defense in a criminal trial, but this high-profile loss seemed to sting more.
“It’s like a chopstick in the eye,” said Ralph Meczyk, one of Peterson’s six attorneys.
Trial participants suggest that Peterson’s defense — whom lead attorney Joel Brodsky repeatedly referred to as “the dream team” — fell victim to a devastating miscalculation by its leader and the former Bolingbrook police sergeant’s unyielding loyalty to him.
Several jurors blamed Peterson’s conviction on Brodskym saying the decision to call Kathleen Savio’s divorce attorney, Harry Smith, tipped the scales in the prosecution’s favor. Smith told jurors that Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy, asked him if she could get more money in a divorce if she threatened to tell police about her husband’s role in Savio’s death.
Brodsky decided to call Smith against the rest of the defense team’s advice. Defense attorney Steve Greenberg was overheard yelling at Brodsky in a courthouse hallway before Smith’s appearance, pleading with Brodsky not to do it.
The debate ended when Peterson sided with Brodsky, sources said.
Brodsky and Peterson have walked in lock step since 2007, when Peterson chose the then-unknown attorney, who had never tried a murder case, to represent him.
“Drew trusts Joel,” defense team member Joseph Lopez said. “Joel is the lead attorney. The rest of us are just there to help.”
Greenberg said calling Smith was not the only mistake in the trial but the most damaging.
“No one in the courtroom — on either defense or prosecution side — knew the case better than Joel,” Greenberg said. “Joel had the foresight to bring on a group of good, experienced trial lawyers. But he didn’t listen to them.”
Tension had been building between Brodsky and Greenberg long before Smith’s appearance. Though Greenberg had a good rapport with Will County Judge Edward Burmila and had been winning most of the defense motions, Brodsky banned him from making objections and often hushed him in court.
Brodsky, who preferred other attorneys call him “coach,” said he needs trial partners who cooperate with him.
“Greenberg did some things that were really good,” Brodsky said. “Keeping (Stacy Peterson friend and hearsay witness Scott) Rosetto off the stand, for instance, was fantastic work. In a team setting, he can be a very difficult person to work with.”
Still, Greenberg and Brodsky presented a united front before the TV cameras during their frequent news conferences. Wearing sunglasses and wide grins, they often poked fun at prosecutors and witnesses.
The duo, along with Lopez, were sharply criticized for a news conference during jury selection in which they mocked Stacy Peterson’s disappearance. They later apologized.
Only two members of the defense team - Meczyk and Darryl Goldberg - shunned the media spotlight during the trial. Lisa Lopez went to the press availabilities but preferred not to discuss legal strategies.
Meczyk, a veteran criminal defense lawyer, acknowledged that the Peterson publicity machine made him uncomfortable at times.
“I’m from the old school,” he said during deliberations. “It’s not my style.”
Goldberg also repeatedly declined to discuss how various legal and publicity strategies affected the case.
Peterson’s lawyers agreed to represent him free, lured by the case’s challenges and the acclaim that would come from an acquittal. In the end, they lost more than five week’s worth of billable hours.
“I thought it would be fun because I like a tough legal challenge,” Joseph Lopez said. “I knew it was going to be a landmark case, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Despite the defense team’s inner turmoil, the jurors gave approval to the attorneys’ performance.
“He had good lawyers,” jury foreman Eduardo Saldana said Friday. “You know, they had their tactics.”
“Some were better than others,” fellow juror Teresa Matthews interjected.
That was endorsement enough for Brodsky.
“What they’re saying is, all of them said the defense team did a great job,” he said.