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 suggest 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. “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, 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.
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.
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. Although four samples provided no conclusive DNA evidence, one sample 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 1994 autopsy found that Christine Grega was violently sodomized, and the unknown male’s DNA was found in a sample taken from her rectum. The DNA from the unknown male came from skin left behind, Valerio 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 the lab called it a “minor component” of the sample.
The presence of Grega’s DNA in the sample is consistent with his statements to police that he and his wife had anal sex on the afternoon of the murder. In his report, the medical examiner hypothesized that Christine Grega was sodomized with a foreign object about twice the size of a normal penis.
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?
The Gregas were from Lake Grove, NY, a town on Long Island with a population of about 10,000. 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 Timber Creek condominium, which they borrowed from a friend.
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 September 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.
After learning of the injuries that resulted from the sexual assault, 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.
Grega and his attorneys 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.
But an investigation after the testing in May shows that the “unknown male” DNA matches neither of the two painters.
“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 Windham Superior Court Judge John 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.
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.
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.”
An unabridged version of this story can be found at www.vermontpressbureau.com.