DNA puts 1994 Grega murder case in new light
By Thatcher Moats
VERMONT PRESS BUREAU | July 25,2012
John Grega found guilty after 1995 murder trial.
MONTPELIER — Lawyers at the Vermont defender general’s office believe John Grega has lived an unimaginable nightmare for the past 18 years: Locked in prison for the rape and murder of his wife even though he did not commit the crime.
Grega was arrested, tried and convicted after his wife, Christine Grega, was found dead in a bathtub in 1994 at the West Dover condominium where they were staying with their 2-year-old son.
But new DNA test results show someone else may have committed the murder, and a lawyer at the defender general’s office and a private attorney filed a motion Tuesday in Windham Superior Court asking a judge to overturn Grega’s conviction and set him free, or at least grant a new trial.
Matthew Valerio, the state’s defender general, who oversees the prisoners’ rights office, firmly believes Grega is innocent.
“I don’t have any doubt with this DNA,” Valerio said in an interview. “There’s no explanation, from my perspective.”
In the motion to set aside Grega’s conviction, Dawn Matthews, who works for the prisoners’ rights office, and Ian Carleton, a Burlington attorney who has also worked on Grega’s case, were equally definitive.
“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 wrote in the motion filed Tuesday.
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.”
If he is eventually found innocent, Grega would be the first convict in Vermont history exonerated using DNA evidence, though he would join hundreds of others around the country set free in the last 20 years thanks to advances in forensic science.
Grega’s attempt to prove his innocence was aided greatly by the Innocence Protection Act the Vermont Legislature passed in 2008, which allows people convicted of certain crimes to petition the court to order tests.
Grega, now 50 years old, did not want to be interviewed for this story, his lawyers said, but he has always denied that he killed his wife and has filed several appeals since a jury convicted him in 1995.
“I came to Vermont on vacation,” Grega told the Vermont Supreme Court during an appeal hearing in January 2003. “I loved my wife. I did not come to Vermont to hurt my wife.”
The recent developments in Grega’s case and the results of the DNA test have not been reported on previously.
Despite the results of the DNA test that suggest another, unknown man may have killed his wife, Grega’s exoneration is not assured.
Now that the defender general’s office has filed its motion, it will be up to Windham County State’s Attorney Tracy Shriver to respond, and it will be up to Superior Court Judge John P. Wesley to make a decision.
Shriver did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Lawyers for Grega say they don’t have to prove their client is innocent for a judge to take action. Rather, Vermont law requires the establishment of a “reasonable likelihood” that the defendant would not have been convicted had the new DNA evidence been presented to the jury, according to the motion filed Tuesday.
As Matthews and Valerio reflected on Grega’s claim, they said it’s extraordinary to come across a case like his.
“Even as someone who does this kind of work, you rarely have these, ‘Oh, my God. This is a real innocence claim,’” said Matthews. “That’s what this is for.”
The DNA test that Grega is relying on to demonstrate his innocence was completed in May at a lab in Indiana.
The test was the result of a court battle Grega began about two years ago to force the state to examine old evidence investigators had gathered at the crime scene.
A forensic scientist conducted DNA tests on samples taken from Christine Grega’s body.
Three of the samples produced no male DNA. A fourth sample showed “low level activity,” though a report said “no comparisons can be made to this sample.”
One sample, however, showed an unknown male’s DNA as the “major component,” and that’s the test result on which Grega is basing his claim of innocence.
The autopsy found that Christine Grega was violently sodomized, and the unknown male’s DNA was found in a sample taken from her rectum.
The discovery of the unknown male DNA casts enormous doubt on Grega’s conviction, said Valerio.
“If it doesn’t give you reasonable doubt, I don’t know what does,” said Valerio.
It hasn’t been proven that the unknown male who left the DNA was also the killer, but the logical conclusion is that there is a direct link, said Valerio.
The DNA from the unknown male came from skin left behind, he said.
“Given the damage done ... and the violence it suggests, you would think the person that left that DNA was responsible for the violence that occurred,” Valerio said.
John Grega was excluded as the source of the DNA that has been attributed to the unknown male. But Grega’s DNA was found in the same swab as the unknown male’s, though it was a “minor component” of the sample, according to the lab.
The presence of Grega’s DNA in the sample is consistent with his statements to police.
“He admitted he had sex with her, so that supports his story,” said Valerio.
Shriver hasn’t responded to the motion from Grega’s attorneys yet, but it describes the state’s current theory in the case: that the unknown male’s sample came from “contact DNA” that was transferred to the victim from an inanimate object during the attack.
The theory is “tenuous, if not downright frivolous,” Grega’s attorneys wrote, because the state does not have the object; doesn’t know what the object was; has no confirmation that an object was used, aside from a medical examiner’s hypothesis; and hasn’t explained why it was not Grega’s DNA — if he was wielding the object — that was transferred.
Once the testing was complete in May, Grega was quickly returned to Vermont from the prison in Kentucky where he had been living, and he is now housed at the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield.
The DNA test begs the question: If Grega didn’t kill his wife, why was he convicted? And who did kill her?
Court papers hint at some of the reasons police, prosecutors and jurors became convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Grega killed his wife, but they also expose some of the weaknesses in the case.
The Gregas were from Lake Grove, N.Y., a town on Long Island with a population of about 10,000, and in September 1994 they had traveled to West Dover with their 2½-year-old son, John Henry Grega Jr., for a family vacation near Mount Snow.
The Gregas stayed at a condominium, which they borrowed from a friend, at a complex called Timber Creek.
Christine Grega, 31, was a physician’s assistant who worked for a rehabilitation center in Hauppauge, N.Y.
John Grega was a partner in his father’s successful window-washing business, Huntington Window Cleaning. He had graduated from Columbia University with a degree in pharmacology, and worked for a NASA contractor before losing his job due to budget cuts.
On Sept. 12, 1994, John Grega found Christine Grega’s body in the downstairs whirlpool bathtub in the condo.
Grega told police he was away at a playground with his young son and returned to find his wife in the bathtub.
After unsuccessfully trying to revive her, Grega ran next door to have the neighbors call an ambulance, according to court records, and police responded to a report of someone who had “fallen in the bathroom.”
The medical examiner determined she died from asphyxiation, but she was also brutally assaulted: Her body showed evidence of more than 100 distinct injuries, including sexual assault.
John Grega had no criminal record, no history of mental illness and no history of violence, sexual or otherwise, court records state, but on Dec. 19, 1994, he was charged with his wife’s murder and taken into custody.
Less than a year later, on Aug. 4, 1995, a jury convicted him of aggravated murder and aggravated sexual assault, and Grega became the first person ever sentenced in Vermont to life in prison without the chance for parole.
Judge Wesley — in a ruling that is part of Grega’s most recent attempt to prove his innocence — offered numerous facts that indicate why law enforcement, prosecutors and a jury concluded Grega was the murderer.
Wesley quoted a Vermont Supreme Court decision that said the “most damaging to (Grega) was his attempt to explain his wife’s death as an accident.”
He explained that sometimes he grasped his wife’s neck during sex, unless she complained “it was too rough,” and he said his wife’s head injuries could have been caused by her hitting a wall or the bed during sex, court records show.
Grega also gave investigators several accounts of the events surrounding his wife’s death that included conflicting details, Wesley pointed out.
After learning of the injuries that resulted from the sexual assault, for instance, Grega gave different versions of their recent sexual relations and included details that may have helped incriminate him.
Later, in the presence of attorneys, he changed the timing of some of the events he had earlier described and said he didn’t have his hands around his wife’s neck and that she was “fine” after they had had sex.
Grega also told police the reason for the trip to Vermont was to get their marriage “back on track” after they had discussed divorce, and the troubled marriage became part of the state’s case against him.
At trial, the then-Windham County State’s Attorney Dan Davis argued that Grega was an alcoholic who killed his wife after she threatened to leave him.
The prosecution believed Grega killed his wife and then left the apartment with his son to create an alibi.
Circumstantial evidence also seemed to point to Grega, the Vermont Supreme Court wrote in one decision in which it highlighted the presence of bloody clothes left at mid-cycle in a washing machine in the condominium and the “otherwise unusual cleanliness of the crime scene.”
“These facts indicate that the person who raped and murdered Mrs. Grega took time to clean and wipe down surfaces in the condominium, and to place the bloody clothes in the washing machine, let the machine fill up, and stop the machine mid-cycle so the clothing would soak in the soapy water,” the justices wrote. “Only the defendant would have been free to take his time cleaning up the scene, secure in the knowledge that no one else would be returning to the condominium. Defendant’s isolated fingerprint on the washing machine was also evidence that he had placed the bloody clothes in the washer.”
The court noted there was no forced entry into the condominium.
Prosecutors also had statements from John Grega Jr. that they hoped to use, but Valerio said the boy didn’t testify at trial.
According to court documents cited in a 1995 Rutland Herald news article, John Grega Jr. made comments to an aunt about the murder.
The boy reportedly told the aunt that his mother had become an angel. When the aunt asked how that happened, she received a fragmentary response, according to records.
“Because mom and dad were fighting,” the boy reportedly said. “Mom wanted to take a shower. ... Mommy was on the bathroom floor. ... I touched her hair. ... She was cold.”
The boy also told the aunt that he and his dad went out to eat pretzels while his mother rested on the floor, according to the court records.
Police also said the son spoke to his nanny — after his mother’s death but before his father’s arrest — and talked about a fight between his parents before the Vermont trip.
“They were fighting because mommy wanted to take a shower,” John Grega Jr. reportedly said of a trip to upstate New York. “He slammed mommy’s hair into the door and it went bam.”
After the incident, they all went to bed, the boy reportedly told the nanny.
The evidence used against Grega, however, is hardly conclusive proof he committed the crime, wrote Carleton, the attorney, in a 2010 legal motion.
He said the state’s case was built on a “hodgepodge of circumstantial evidence” without a shred of direct physical evidence or direct testimony linking Grega to his wife’s death.
“The State proceeded at trial on the theory that nobody else had the opportunity to kill Mrs. Grega; that, however, was not true,” Carleton wrote in the petition for DNA testing. “It was a legal fiction created out of a combination of shoddy police work, successful exclusion of exculpatory evidence by a skilled prosecution team, and woefully ineffective defense counsel.”
Grega and his attorneys have offered a counter-theory in the case — one that the new DNA evidence greatly undermines — that focuses on two painters with criminal records who were working at the condominium complex where Christine Grega was killed.
On the day of the murder, Bryant Comi and Michael Carpenter were working as day laborers painting the exterior of the condo complex.
Testimony at Grega’s trial established that Comi was in the vicinity of the Gregas’ condominium at the time of the murder, according to court records.
Comi had a “substantial violent criminal record,” according to court papers, and a history of sexual aggression toward women.
He also had entered and stolen property from at least one other condominium unit in the same complex in the past, records show.
And he smoked Marlboros, a crucial piece of evidence, Grega’s attorneys believed, because a piece of a Marlboro cigarette box was found partly flushed in the upstairs toilet of the condominium where the murder occurred, yet neither of the Gregas smoked.
The piece of cigarette package was found stuck to the side of a toilet in the condominium that investigators found clogged with a wad of towels.
When police interviewed Carpenter and Comi, the two men gave false addresses and phone numbers, according to court records.
They gave inconsistent stories about whether John Grega’s red Volkswagen was parked at the condominium around the time of the murder.
They told inconsistent stories about what parts of the condominium they had been painting.
They lied about what time they got home that night, according to court records.
Michael Carpenter’s wife said her husband was unusually agitated that night, to the point where they got in a fight and he left to spend the night elsewhere, according to court records.
“Even more disturbingly, Bryant Comi himself admits that when he arrived home that night ‘he may have joked about the death of the lady and joked that he had killed the lady’” to his girlfriend, according to Carleton’s 2010 motion.
After admitting to an investigator that he may have joked about killing Christine Grega, Comi then denied actually killing her, records show.
Comi and Carpenter testified during trial and denied involvement in the murder, but there was much evidence the jury was not allowed to hear: their criminal histories, their history of assaultive behavior and prior thefts, and the hearsay statement attributed to Comi in which he purportedly claimed responsibility for the crime.
In 2010, as attorneys pushed for DNA testing in Grega’s case, they laid out the evidence that pointed to Carpenter and Comi.
“DNA testing linking Comi and/or Carpenter to the crime scene would therefore be enormously significant to this case,” Carleton wrote.
But the DNA testing completed in May doesn’t do that: An investigation after the testing shows that the “unknown male” DNA matches neither Carpenter’s nor Comi’s.
“It means they’re not the ones who left that DNA,” said Valerio. “We don’t know who that is.”
The follow-up investigation also excluded the owner of the condominium unit, the state medical examiner, the regional medical examiner and the condominium rental agent as the source of the DNA.
Grega could be released from prison soon even if Judge Wesley doesn’t take the extraordinary step of vacating his conviction and wiping all traces of the murder conviction from his record.
The judge could order a new trial, in which case Grega’s attorneys would almost certainly request that he be freed pending trial.
He could also give Grega a new sentence, according to Vermont law, potentially giving him credit for time served.
Grega has been challenging his conviction and sentencing since a jury found him guilty in 1995, but he is now closer than ever to scoring a major victory.
Matthews, the attorney with the prisoners’ rights office who represents Grega, said Grega has worked extremely hard on his case and noted that he became the law librarian at the Kentucky prison where he had been living.
“As much as any of the lawyers that have worked on this case, that guy has done a ton of work on his legal issues, and he’s really good,” said Matthews.
Valerio said the innocence claim would be next to impossible without the law Vermont passed in 2008, and he said many people downplayed the importance of the legislation at the time, saying Vermont doesn’t convict innocent people.
Valerio called that view “pretty naïve.”
“The thing that came up over and over again was this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Vermont, and from a defense perspective, I know innocent people have been convicted,” said Valerio. “I think this case will make people aware generally that criminal justice systems are fallible and that this kind of thing can indeed happen in Vermont. People should also know it’s rare.”
As a result of what he views as a wrongful conviction, Grega is “owed something,” said Valerio.
“I don’t know what. I’ll let the civil justice system figure that out,” said Valerio. “But take 20 years of life away and your reputation, and your wife was taken away from you, too, and your kid, and what it’s like to be an innocent man locked up for 20 years after having your wife murdered while you were away ... I don’t know. It’s hard to even get your head around.”