CHICAGO (MCT) — Drew Peterson's criminal defense lawyer, Joel Brodsky, said he spoke to his jailed client on the phone Thursday morning and played him the just-released online trailer of the upcoming Lifetime movie "Drew Peterson: Untouchable."
"He laughed and said, 'That's hilarious,'" Brodsky said.
But the movie's legal implications aren't so funny to Brodsky and Peterson, the former Bolingbrook police sergeant awaiting trial in Will County in the murder of his third wife, Kathleen Savio, while under suspicion in the disappearance of his fourth wife, Stacy Peterson.
"Untouchable" — based on Joseph Hosey's 2008 book "Fatal Vows: The Tragic Wives of Sergeant Drew Peterson" and scheduled to air Jan. 21 on the cable network — stars a gray-mustached Rob Lowe as Peterson. The trailer is full of horror-film sound effects and flash cuts to seemingly violent images as a woman looks terrified by a garage door going up and down, before Lowe's Peterson is shown on the other side and utters his sole line: "I'm untouchable, bitch."
"That's the first time he or I have heard him being accused of using that term," Brodsky said. "Which just goes to show you this movie is not reality; it's entertainment."
Nonetheless, attorney Walter Maksym sent a cease-and-desist letter on Peterson's behalf to Lifetime over the summer, giving a July 22 deadline for the network to abandon its plans to air the film or else face legal action. Maksym no longer represents Peterson, and no suit was filed.
"We are certainly doing legal research into our legal options to stop the movie from being shown so close to the beginning of a trial," Brodsky said. "But I can't tell you that the legal precedents are strongly in our favor. They're certainly not."
Peterson, whose trial is on hold pending a prosecution appeal, never sued Hosey over the book.
As the Pentagon Papers case demonstrated in the 1970s, Brodsky said, the First Amendment tends to be the trump card.
"It's a pretty stiff burden to try to stop something from being published or shown," Brodsky said. "The case law is strongly in favor of the freedom of speech. … My hope is that people understand that a Lifetime entertainment movie is not a substitute for facts presented in a court of law."
At the same time, he said he'll be on the lookout for libelous material. Peterson has denied wrongdoing in the Savio and Peterson cases.
"When Drew Peterson is acquitted, there are a number of people who are going to have to be concerned about libel suits because a lot of people have wrongfully said that Drew Peterson is a murderer," Brodsky said, citing Geraldo Rivera's accusations on Fox News as one example.
Chicago entertainment lawyer E. Leonard Rubin, who is not involved in the case, said Peterson's team could have valid legal arguments depending on what the film depicts.
"This could be an invasion of privacy if they intimate that he is guilty before he is judged to be guilty," Rubin said, noting that with public figures, filmmakers and biographers have the right to use whatever is a matter of public record but must tread more carefully where private lives are involved.
The gray area, Rubin added, comes when a film or book is presenting matters as speculation rather than fact. "If they want in this (TV) special to give an opinion, and it's clear that it's an opinion that Drew Peterson is guilty, they could be protected by the First Amendment," he said.
Then again, he added, outright accusations must be proven wrong anyway for libel to apply.
Lifetime may have revealed its own sense of caution as the movie's title has changed from the summer's more provocative "Ladykiller: The Drew Peterson Story" to "Drew Peterson: Untouchable." Network representatives declined to comment Thursday.
Brodsky said he assumes he won't have a chance to see "Untouchable" before it airs, "though I'd love to." Meanwhile, he said he's not putting much stock in the promotional materials. "A lot of times the movie is nothing like the trailer, so I'm not going to prejudge the movie."
Still, he said the trailer's use of that "untouchable" phrase indicates the "poetic license" being taken.
"It's nothing to do with the actual truth," he said. "The problem is what people see in the movies tends to become in their minds reality, like Oliver Stone's 'JFK' movie. That's the real fear we have.
"You can guess when we pick a jury, one of the first questions we're going to ask is, 'Did you see the movie 'Untouchable' and did anyone in your family or your friends?' I would say if you want to be on the jury, you probably shouldn't watch the movie."