Judge vacates Grega murder conviction, orders new trial

Thursday August 23, 2012

SPRINGFIELD -- For the past 18 years, John Grega has wanted to taste his mother's chicken paprikash. He has longed to dip his toes into the warm sands of the beaches of his childhood home on Long Island and he has dreamed of gazing up at the night sky.

In the coming days, Grega, 50, is going to fulfill all of these hopes, and more.

Grega walked out of the Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield just after 5 p.m. Wednesday after spending 18 years in prison for a murder he says he did not commit.

"I always said I would walk out," Grega said as he hugged his brother, sister, and then Ian Carleton, his attorney. "I never gave up. I feel good."

Grega was convicted in 1995 of murdering his wife, Christine, while the couple and their then-2-year-old son were vacationing in West Dover the year before.

Judge John Wesley shocked Grega, his family, and both the defense and the prosecution when he said late Tuesday that Grega could leave prison. Wesley's decision quickly followed a joint motion filed on Aug. 20 by Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Kelly Shriver and Grega's attorney, Ian Carleton, asking for a new trial.

The two sides reached that agreement after new DNA evidence was recently discovered that appears to show that someone else might have been involved in the brutal rape and murder of Christine Grega.

Grega was scheduled to have a hearing this Friday, but late Tuesday, Wesley ordered that Grega could immediately be freed on $75,000 bail.

As Grega walked across the prison yard on his way out the gate of Southern State Correctional Facility, a group of prisoners who were playing volleyball stopped to cheer.

"Grega," the men shouted, as he stopped to embrace a number of them.

He then strolled out of the prison holding two large plastic garbage bags and collapsed into the arms of his sobbing mother.

"Johnny. You look great," his mother, Marion Grega, said as she clutched her son in the hot parking lot. "I brought you a Snapple."

Earlier in the day, Grega's family had driven up to Brattleboro from Long Island to post bail at Windham Superior Court Criminal Division.

After bail was posted, Carleton told the Reformer Wesley's decision was "a very encouraging development. I have faith that this time justice will prevail in court."

Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Shriver said the state plans to push ahead with Grega's new trial.

"My job is to seek justice," she said.

The hearing scheduled for Friday followed a motion by Grega's legal team seeking to exonerate him.

Shriver said the state had asked Wesley for an extension, postponing the Friday hearing to allow the state to file more documents in support of its position that Grega's conviction should stand, but Wesley denied the request.

In the joint motion, the state asked the court to set aside or vacate the conviction and to schedule a new trial and Grega's legal team agreed to drop the motion for exoneration.

Grega's case marks the first time a conviction has been overturned under a 2008 Vermont law that allows convicted felons to request DNA testing that might not have been available at the time of the trial.

At the prison gates on Wednesday, Carleton said since Grega's case is the first to be heard under the new law, it is not clear what the next step is. He added there are also questions about how the two sides will handle the 18-year-old evidence and witnesses.

"This is uncharted territory," Carleton said. "We are all trying to get through this first half-hour. I'm sure we'll figure out what comes next quickly."

Gretchen Bennett, executive director of the New England Innocence Project, said Grega's case advanced quickly, largely due to the work that Grega did himself.

Bennett, who has been assisting with the case, was at a conference north of Boston Tuesday when she heard that Grega was going to be released the following day. She drove to Brattleboro and met the family at court, and then was there to wait for Grega in the parking lot in Springfield.

"He sent the application. He let us know that he thought the DNA evidence existed. He was very involved," she said. "This is emotional for everybody."

Southern State Correctional Facility Superintendent Mark Potanas said Grega has been a model prisoner. During his time in Springfield, Grega has been the librarian in the prison's legal library and he has helped other inmates sort through the legal texts as they, too, tried to fight their convictions.

"He's a very well-spoken young man," Potanas said. "If I had more inmates like him I'd be a happy man."

Christine Grega was found dead on the evening of Sept. 12, 1994, strangled, raped, sodomized and beaten.

When asked by police, Grega gave conflicting stories about what had happened the day of his wife's death, first stating her injuries were accidental and later blaming her murder on two painters who were working in the condo complex.

In November 2010, a request was made to test certain items collected from the scene of the crime, including swabs from various parts of Christine's body.

Testing on the swabs was conducted on May 14 of this year, which revealed male DNA that didn't match Grega's.

In mid-July, Grega's legal team, which includes the Vermont Defender General's Office and Carleton, filed a motion asking that their client be freed or at least granted a new trial.

"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," the lawyers wrote in the motion. "Under the reasonable doubt standard, this new DNA evidence -- which was never presented to the jury and therefore was never considered in deliberations -- would have not just slightly, but vastly, increased the likelihood of an acquittal or a hung jury in the original trial. 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."

His conditions of release stipulate that he has to remain at his mother's home in Lake Ronkonkoma and he can not see Christine Grega's family, unless they initiate the meeting. He will also be checking in with police in New York.

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at hwtisman@reformer.com or at 802-254-2311 ext. 279.

Reformer staffer Bob Audette assisted in this report. He can be reached at raudette@reformer.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.


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