Is it Capozzi again?
Public has good reason to wonder if an innocent woman is in prison
With all due respect to the district attorney, if Erie County residents have come down with “Capozzi syndrome,” it’s for a reason.
The flaws in the criminal justice system have never been so obvious, with an alarming number of wrongly convicted people being exonerated across the country. Anthony Capozzi is only the most famous one here, though that might change if the conviction of Lynn DeJac falls apart.
Capozzi spent 22 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. DeJac has been behind bars for less time — 13 years — but while Capozzi was convicted of raping a woman he did not know, DeJac was sent to prison for murdering her own daughter.
In Capozzi’s case, his wrongful conviction left Altemio Sanchez, arrested as a serial killer, on the loose. Police now wonder if the same thing happened with DeJac, who has protested her innocence since her arrest in 1993. Police are looking into a possibility that DeJac’s supporters have claimed all along: that a former boyfriend, Dennis Donohue, committed the crime.
Donohue was charged Tuesday with the 1993 murder of Joan Giambra of South Buffalo. But police also see similarities between Giambra’s killing and those of Carol Reed of Buffalo and DeJac’s daughter, Crystallynn M. Girard, who was 13 at the time. Donohue knew them all, investigators say.
Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark cautions against a rush to conclude that DeJac was wrongly convicted. “We seem to have the Capozzi syndrome now.” Indeed, a family friend testified that DeJac confessed the murder to him while they were drinking in a bar.
But defense lawyer Andrew C. LoTempio complained during the trial that the family friend was also facing life in prison on a forgery indictment and had reason to try to please law enforcement.
What is more, Capozzi’s conviction looked similarly solid, at least superficially. He bore a striking resemblance to Sanchez at the time and to a police sketch based on the victim’s description of her attacker. The mistake may have been innocent, but its consequences were terrible.
The painful fact is that the criminal justice system grinds up innocent people more frequently than anyone ever thought in the days before DNA evidence. The Innocence Project, based in New York, reports that since 1992, more than 200 people in the United States have been exonerated of crimes for which they had been convicted — not released on a technicality, but shown to have been innocent. Fifteen of those had been sentenced to death. DeJac says the Innocence Project is now involved in her case.
Was DeJac wrongly convicted? The question is worrisome enough that police need to devote all the resources they can to examining her conviction and any connection Donohue may have to the murder of Crystallynn. DeJac’s lawyers need to monitor that work closely.
An innocent person cannot be left behind bars. More broadly, the criminal justice system, itself, is standing in the dock these days. It can’t save itself except through a relentless determination to correct its mistakes and to figure out how to make them less often.