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'Not a Laughing Matter'

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It’s one thing to laugh in the face of death. But in the face of a murder charge? That’s usually a no-no—though it’s a lesson in common decency that the attention-seeking Drew Peterson seems never to have learned. On the evening of May 7, after Illinois state police arrested Peterson, 55, on charges of killing his third wife, Kathleen Savio, 40, in 2004, the suspect quipped, “I should have returned those library books.” Nor was that the end of his shtick. The next day he was led into his arraignment in a red jail jumpsuit and manacles. “Three squares a day and this spiffy outfit,” he cracked. “How can I complain?”

He may soon be counting the ways. Said Will County State’s Attorney James Glasgow: “It is not a laughing matter.” Peterson’s lawyer Joel Brodsky vowed to get the $20 million bail reduced. But at the very least, for the families of both Savio and Peterson’s fourth wife, Stacy, then 23, who has been missing since October ’07, the arrest offered relief from the gnawing fear that Peterson would never face justice. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this,” Kathleen’s father, Henry, told PEOPLE.

The indictment against Peterson did not lay out any of the evidence against him. What is known is that after Stacy disappeared and Kathleen’s body was disinterred, a second autopsy confirmed that she had drowned, but this time the pathologist concluded it was a homicide that had been staged to look like an accident. In building their case, prosecutors appear to be relying heavily on statements that Kathleen made prior to her death—including comments to family and even a reported letter to a prosecutor—in which she claimed that Peterson, with whom she was in the middle of a divorce settlement, might kill her. Normally that would be hearsay and thus inadmissible in court. But late last year the Illinois legislature passed a law, widely known as the Drew Peterson Law, which allows such hearsay to be considered under certain circumstances. Said prosecutor Glasgow after the arrest: “We are very confident in our case.”

But other outside legal experts are not so sure. Joseph Lopez, a prominent Chicago attorney, points out that the state does not seem to have any scientific evidence linking Peterson to the murder. “There’s no CSI in this case,” says Lopez. “Juries love CSI.” Further, those hearsay statements from Kathleen may never be aired in front of a jury. Leonard Cavise, a law professor at DePaul University in Chicago, observes that last summer the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in most instances earlier reports to police by a victim could not be used against an accused killer because it would violate accused persons’ right to confront witnesses against them. “I’m waiting to see them roll out the big guns,” says Cavise of the prosecution, “and I haven’t seen it yet.”

From the outset Peterson’s family—including two children he had with Kathleen, Tommy, 16, and Kris, 14, and two with Stacy, Anthony, 5, and Lacy, 4—have been his biggest supporters. In a statement released by Stephen Peterson, 29, a son by an earlier marriage, the kids were quoted as saying, “We miss our dad and are praying for his release every day.” (The four younger Petersons are staying with Stephen while their father is behind bars.) Nor apparently has Peterson’s 24-year-old fiancée, Christina Raines, abandoned him. Brodsky says the couple, who have gone through some stormy periods over the past year, are still together. In a February interview with PEOPLE Raines said she believed him innocent. “I don’t see him hurting anyone,” she said. There are of course plenty of others who disagree. Sue Doman, 50, Kathleen’s older sister, says, “It gave me great joy to see” Peterson at last in police custody. As for those wisecracks, his lawyer says Peterson was merely trying to cope. “This is Drew’s knee-jerk reaction when he is in a stressful situation,” says Brodsky, who notes Peterson passed an independent lie detector test—not admissible in court—about Kathleen’s death for the book Drew Peterson Exposed. It will be up to a jury to decide if the joke, ultimately, is on him.