Monday, September 2, 2013

Wrongful Conviction Reversed In Vermont

John Grega's story represents the first ever wrongful conviction reversed—with the assistance of Spence Forensic Resources (SFR).

The following summary of these recently unfolding events has been provided by Michael J. Spence, Ph.D.—the founder of SFR:

On February 28, 2011, I was contacted by Ian P. Carleton, an attorney located in Burlington, Vermont. Ian asked for my assistance on a 1994 homicide case. Ian's client, John Grega, was accused—and later convicted—of the horrific beating, rape, and strangulation of his wife, Christine Grega. To the present day—and throughout an enormously protracted 19-year ordeal—Mr. Grega has persistently maintained his innocence. Ian informed me of the complete absence of any available funds. This was no surprise. Typically, sparse resources are available to pursue justice for a convicted man, such as John Grega. Ian asked if I would be willing to examine the case documents and provide my opinion—in the form of an affidavit—with hopes to persuade the Windham County (Vermont) Court’s approval of post-conviction DNA testing.

Before I agreed to review the case file—I asked Ian to explain the detailed circumstances of the homicide. The facts of the case were as follows:

John Grega, an educated man, was a partner in his father’s window-washing business. John, his wife Christine, and their 2-year-old son, John Henry Grega Jr., lived in the Long Island town of Lake Grove, NY.

The Gregas traveled to West Dover, Vermont for a family vacation. On September 12, 1994, the Gregas were staying at a small condominium complex called Timber Creek. On that fateful day, John took his toddler son out to a local playground. When John returned to Timber Creek, his child was sound asleep in the backseat of the car. Shortly after entering the condo, John found Christine, dead in the downstairs whirlpool bathtub.

After unsuccessfully attempting to revive Christine, John ran next door to have the neighbors call an ambulance. Although John thought that Christine might have still been alive, the medical examiner later determined that the woman had died from asphyxiation. She had also been brutally assaulted. Her body showed signs of more than 100 distinct injuries, including irrefutable evidence of a sexual assault.

The investigators and the prosecution fixated on the fact that there was no sign of forced entry into the condo. They theorized that Grega—in fear that his wife intended to abandon an allegedly troubled marriage—killed his wife and then left the apartment with his son to create an alibi. John Grega had no criminal record, no history of mental illness, and no history of violence—sexual or otherwise. There were no witnesses to the crime and virtually no physical evidence was introduced at the trial. Regardless of these facts—and based upon nothing beyond a purely circumstantial case—John was charged with Christine’s murder. Less than a year later, on August 4, 1995, a jury convicted John Grega of aggravated murder and aggravated sexual assault. John became the FIRST PERSON EVER sentenced in the state of Vermont to life in prison without any chance for parole.

Did the criminal justice system in Vermont get this wrong?

In order to answer this question, I agreed to assist Mr. Carleton and Mr. Grega, by providing them with a careful examination of the various relevant biological/DNA documents associated with the case. At the same time, the defense was incorporating the assistance of two additional DNA experts. These scientists were Shelley Johnson, a DNA analysis Group Leader at Fairfax Identity Labs (Richmond, Virginia) and Steven Laken, Ph.D., CEO of Cephos Corporation, (Tyngsboro, Massachusetts).

On March 29, 2011, I provided an affidavit—which addressed the Windham County Court. In parallel to the documents provided by Ms. Johnson and Dr. Laken, I attested to the urgent need to utilize powerful DNA technology—which was entirely unavailable in 1995. Such state-of-the-art tests hold the potential to reveal previously unobtainable results from ‘intimate’ items recovered from a variety of complex crime scenes. A passage from my affidavit—persuading the Windham County Court to utilize Y-chromosome-based DNA testing—appeared as follows:

"The YFiler system (trademark of Applied Biosystems, Inc.) has proven to be an extraordinarily effective diagnostic tool in criminal case investigations-particularly sexual assaults and child molestations. The reason for this effectiveness is the fact that, regardless of the load of DNA present from any female contributors, the Y Chromosome-based Y-STR system provides typing data only from any male DNA that is present within the detection limits. Y-STR based DNA typing was not available at the time that this crime occurred.

This technology would be particularly valuable for the analysis of any intimate swabs taken from Mrs. Grega’s body – specifically, oral, anal and vaginal swabs. A Y-STR DNA profile from any intimate swab might indicate the presence of biological material from John Grega or his two-year old son, John Henry Jr. These two Y-STR profiles would be identical, due to their father-son relationship. However, in the event that such a test reveals the presence of as little as one or a few unknown male genetic markers-alleles that cannot be accounted for by John Grega’s Y chromosome-this would conclusively establish presence of an unidentified male. Logic dictates that such a discovery would point to this individual as a person who engaged in intimate contact with Ms. Grega, sometime immediately prior to her death."

On September 2, 2011, the Vermont Court ordered the prosecution and the Vermont Attorney General’s Office to arrange for DNA testing of evidence from John Grega’s case. On May 14, 2012, a laboratory report was released—summarizing the extraordinary DNA test results. A DNA mixture was revealed on an anal swab that had been collected during the 1994 medical examination—from the deceased body of Christine Grega. Within that DNA mixture, THE MAJOR DNA PROFILE ORIGINATED FROM AN UNKNOWN MALE. To be clear, this unknown male IS NOT Mr. Grega. To this day, this mysterious male has yet to be identified.

Prosecutors working on the Grega case reluctantly agreed that—in light of these remarkable DNA results—Mr. Grega was entitled to a new trial. Consequently, the Court ordered such a trial to take place. On August 22, 2012, John Grega was finally released from prison, after serving 18 years for a crime that he clearly did not commit. John walked out of the Southern State Correctional Facility (Springfield, Vermont) and into the arms of his family and friends.

In a motion crafted by Mr. Carleton and the defense team, they wrote: “It is difficult to overstate the game-changing nature of this new evidence, especially in a case where, as here, the evidence of Mr. Grega’s guilt has at all times been purely circumstantial….” . They added “Put simply, we now have compelling evidence that John Grega did not commit the crime for which he has served nearly two decades in jail.”

John Grega’s tireless efforts to prove his innocence have been facilitated by the Innocence Protection Act—passed by the Vermont Legislature in 2008. This enormously vital social initiative allows individuals convicted of certain crimes—under questionable circumstances—to petition the court for various types of forensic tests—including DNA. Vermont Defender General, Matthew Valerio, pointed out that—at the time—many people were downplaying the importance of the 2008 legislation. Their claim was that “Vermont doesn’t convict innocent people.” Valerio refered to that view as: “.....pretty na├»ve. The thing that came up over and over again was this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Vermont.”

Defying logic, the Vermont prosecution team continued to subject John to this seemingly endless ordeal. They continued—over the course of an additional year—to try to salvage their case, in anticipation of a new trial. On August 21, 2013, the prosecution finally abandoned their poorly-conceived denial of the glaring truth. They dismissed all charges against the man. John Grega has now become the first person in Vermont’s history to be exonerated—based on DNA evidence obtained under the state’s 2008 Innocence Protection Act.

Michael J. Spence, Ph.D. September 2, 2013.