BRATTLEBORO — A Vermont judge has put the old John Grega murder case on a new fast track.
A day after Grega’s attorney filed a motion asking that the New York man be set free or given a new trial, citing new DNA analysis of evidence from his 1995 trial in the death of his wife, Christine, Superior Judge John Wesley set a status conference on the case for this morning in civil court in Windham County.
Lawyers at the Vermont defender general’s office filed the motion Tuesday, saying that Grega, who has been in jail for 18 years, should be set free because the new DNA analysis raised significant doubts about his conviction. That analysis revealed the DNA of another male on Christine Grega’s body.
They called the new DNA analysis “game changing. ” If the motion is granted, Grega would be the first Vermont inmate to be freed under the Innocence Protection Act, which the Legislature passed in 2008 and allows convicted felons to petition the court for new tests.
But two Windham County prosecutors involved in Grega’s case said they were convinced he was guilty of his wife’s murder. The Gregas were on vacation in the Mount Snow region in September 1994, trying to put their troubled marriage “back on track.”
Windham County State’s Attorney Tracy Kelly Shriver said she would be fighting the motion and has been given until Friday by Wesley to respond. She declined to outline her legal argument until it has been filed.
A review of records in both Vermont state courts and federal courts reveal that Grega and different lawyers hired by his family have been proclaiming his innocence and fighting his conviction virtually nonstop since his trial. Grega has criticized the trial judge, his original team of attorneys and the prosecutors, raising issues about police procedure, trial strategy and even selection of jurors.
Until now, all of his attempts at freedom have been rejected, first by the Vermont Supreme Court and then by the U.S. District Court.
The prosecutor who won the conviction says recent DNA analysis doesn’t change much in the case.
Dan M. Davis, who as Windham County state’s attorney prosecuted Grega for aggravated murder and the sexual assault of Christine Grega, said Wednesday he remained convinced Grega was responsible.
Grega had too detailed a knowledge of his wife’s extensive injuries when he talked to police before he was arrested, said Davis.
“He had an explanation for all her injuries,” he said.
Grega attributed many of his wife’s injuries to their sex life, but both Davis and Shriver said the sexual injuries Christine Grega received “could not be consensual.”
Davis said if the newly tested DNA was from semen, he would be the first to move for dismissal. “I don’t think the evidence changes anything,” said Davis, who is now a criminal defense attorney in private practice in Brattleboro.
But he said the new analysis shows the DNA comes from epithelial, or skin cells, and he said that DNA probably came from an object used to sodomize Christine Grega, or from the whirlpool bathtub she was in. It’s not known whose DNA it is.
Davis, who during his 21 years as a county prosecutor handled 18 homicide cases, including nine murder trials, said the DNA in question was discussed during the 1995 trial, but that scientific analysis was inconclusive back then.
He said back in 1995, Grega’s attorneys asserted the substance found on an anal swab was actually paint, which supported their now-discredited theory that two house painters were involved in Christine Grega’s murder.
But Davis said the new DNA analysis shows that while it belongs to a male other than John Grega, it also ruled out the two house painters and a group of police investigators and medical examiners who handled the evidence. Davis has been kept up to date with the developments in the case by Shriver.
Davis said John Grega, a graduate of Columbia University who worked for NASA on the space shuttle’s toilet design before he was laid off, is highly intelligent. At the time of the murder, Grega was working for his family’s window-washing firm.
Gretchen Bennett, the executive director of the New England Innocence Project, consulted with Grega’s attorneys as they went through the process of having the DNA tested and built the innocence claim that was filed Tuesday.
She was disappointed that Shriver did not agree to join the motion to vacate Grega’s sentence. Bennett said prosecutors agree to join the motions in the majority of cases like Grega’s.
“I had hoped there would have been a better outcome,” she said.
Bennett, who said she has spoken with Grega, believes that based on the DNA, he deserves to be exonerated.
In addition, she believes Grega has acted the way an innocent person would act since the DNA test results came back in May.
He has agreed to wait while investigators exclude other potential sources of the DNA and has shown no interest in striking a deal that does not entail him being declared innocent.
“I know that it’s important to Mr. Grega to be proved innocent to his son,” Bennett said.
John Grega’s son was 2½ when Christine Grega was killed in 1994 and was raised by his mother’s family.
Grega’s latest pursuit of DNA testing and his claim of innocence were possible thanks to the Innocence Protection Act.
Bennett said every state but Oklahoma has similar statutes.
Vermont has one of the best such laws in the country, said Bennett.
“I think the wording is very clear and there weren’t a lot of limitations,” she said. “Initially, when a lot of these laws passed, there were a lot of limitations because people were afraid there was going to be a lot of litigation.”
“That didn’t happen in any state,” she added.
Matt Valerio, Vermont’s defender general, gave much of the credit for passing Vermont’s Innocence Protection Act to Sen. Dick Sears, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Without him as a champion of getting this through in Vermont, this wouldn’t have happened,” said Valerio.
Sears said he wasn’t surprised to learn that someone may have been wrongly convicted.
“When I reported the bill on the Senate floor, I remember saying I hope it’s never used in Vermont but it’s naive to think no one was ever wrongly convicted, and if they were we have to have a process to deal with it,” said Sears.
Grega has been returned to Vermont from a Kentucky prison where he has been serving his sentence of life without parole. He is at the state prison in Springfield.
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