Grega pleads not guilty to 1994 murder; DNA testing argued
BRATTLEBORO -- More than eight months after he walked out of prison due to new DNA evidence, John Grega pleaded not guilty to the latest charges alleging that he murdered his wife in 1994.
The New York man appeared in Windham Superior Court Criminal Division on Thursday as his defense attorneys and Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Shriver continue to prepare for a new trial in the Sept. 12, 1994, death of 31-year-old Christine Grega.
She was killed in a Dover condominium where the couple and their son were vacationing.
Grega, 50, was convicted in 1995 of aggravated sexual assault and aggravated murder, which carried a life sentence without parole.
But new DNA evidence -- which was not available at the time of the original trial -- surfaced last year, and Grega was freed pending a new trial. The testing found the DNA of an unknown male on a swab taken from Christine Grega's body during an autopsy.
Shriver has filed an amended aggravated-murder charge. After Grega's not-guilty plea on Thursday, the suspect -- who is living with his mother on Long Island -- was released on the same conditions that had been imposed last year.
However, Grega also asked for -- and was granted -- permission to check in with Vermont State Police only once weekly via phone. He had been required to call in daily.
Burlington-based defense attorney Ian Carleton said it "seems obvious" that his client intends to stay put and abide by his conditions of release so that he can have his day in court.
"At this point, the court has a track record of Mr. Grega's compliance," Carleton said.
Shriver and Deputy State's Attorney Steven Brown opposed the request, with Brown arguing that a daily call-in requirement remains "appropriate" given the nature of the case.
Judge John Wesley ruled in Grega's favor, saying "the court doesn't believe there is any significant risk of flight."
Wesley also noted that Grega's attorneys have filed a motion to dismiss the new murder charge. The state has not yet responded to that motion.
In a press conference after Thursday's court proceedings, Carleton said the defense wants prosecutors "to clarify what their theory of the case is."
"We took a look at the most recent charging document ... and we do not believe it is constitutionally sufficient," Carleton said.
Shriver said she would respond with a court filing by next week.
Carleton and Shriver on Thursday also debated the time needed for further DNA testing. At issue are additional pieces of evidence found at the murder scene -- Carleton said clothing is one example -- that may contain biological material and, therefore, DNA from whoever killed Christine Grega.
The additional testing will allow prosecutors to compare any DNA found on that evidence with last year's sample that led to Grega's release. Shriver said further testing also will allow the samples to be entered into a larger, national database in an effort to identify the unknown male whose DNA was found on Christine Grega's body.
"We want to be able to determine who this unknown person is," Shriver said.
Such testing cannot be performed by Vermont Forensic Laboratory. But Shriver said there have been delays in finding and receiving proper approvals for a third-party lab to perform the tests.
Carleton said defense attorneys "think it's very unlikely that meaningful results" will arise from additional DNA tests. But he made clear that his client is in favor of such tests being conducted.
"DNA testing is what set John Grega free," Carleton said. "So we are hardly in a position to oppose it."
What was a point of contention, however, was how long those tests should take. Citing Grega's constitutional right to a speedy trial, Carleton asked Wesley to set a two-month deadline for the state to finish its DNA research.
Shriver said meeting that deadline simply "is not possible" and said the process could take up to nine months. She asked for at least three months.
Shortly after Thursday's hearings, Wesley issued an order giving the state until Aug. 23 to finish DNA testing.
Meanwhile, prosecutors and defense attorneys are pushing toward a trial that will involve evidence and an extensive witness list from a crime committed nearly two decades ago.
"The state has to prove this case all over again," Carleton told reporters outside the courthouse. "And I think both sides are rightly concerned about faded memories."
Carleton said he has received a state witness list of 137 people and has conducted 28 depositions so far. The recollections of those witnesses vary, he said.
"Sometimes, it is pretty poor," Carleton said. "In other cases, it's fairly clear. It really depends on the witness."
Grega in 1995 was the first defendant to be convicted of Vermont's aggravated-murder charge. And with a 2008 state law allowing for retesting of DNA evidence in some instances, Grega's case also represented the first time a court was asked to overturn a conviction based on retested DNA.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
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