Wrongly imprisoned upstate NY mother exonerated by new findings
By CAROLYN THOMPSON
Associated Press Writer
February 13, 2008
A 13-year-old girl believed to have been strangled in 1993 actually died of a cocaine overdose, forensics experts said Wednesday -- exonerating the girl's mother, who spent 13 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction.
Lynn DeJac, 44, was released from prison and her second-degree murder conviction was overturned in November after newly analyzed DNA evidence placed DeJac's former boyfriend in the bedroom of her daughter, Crystallynn Girard, around the time the girl died.
But prosecutors were planning to retry DeJac for the death this spring, saying the DNA found in her daughter's body and bed did nothing to refute the circumstantial evidence that led a jury to convict DeJac of killing the girl after a night of heavy drinking.
It was in reviewing evidence for the upcoming trial that the prosecution's forensics experts made the stunning find:
"Crystallynn Girard did not die as a result of manual strangulation," Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark announced Wednesday, "but rather from acute cocaine intoxication."
Cocaine was found in the girl's system at the time of her death, he said, but it was ignored at trial because prosecution and defense lawyers thought the amount was too small to be relevant.
Clark said all charges against DeJac will be dismissed in the next few days.
DeJac's former boyfriend, Dennis Donahue, meanwhile, remains in custody awaiting trial in the strangulation of another woman, Joan Giambra, in 1993, and has been described as a person of interest in a 1975 strangling. But he is no longer being looked at for Crystallynn's death.
"The death of Crystallynn Girard is non-homicidal," Clark said, "and no one can be prosecuted for her death."
Donahue was immune from prosecution in the case anyway because of his testimony against DeJac in 1993.
An emotional DeJac said she was relieved to be cleared of the charges, but remained convinced that her daughter was murdered by Donahue. And she said she would do "anything and everything" to clear Crystallynn's name.
"It was definitely not drugs. It is not the case," she said, breaking down in a mix of emotions she described as anger, frustration and disbelief.
She said her daughter was an honor roll student who aspired to be a lawyer, and that Crystallynn looked out for her more than she looked out for Crystallynn.
"It's not going to stay like this. My daughter was not a drug user ... My daughter was murdered. There's no question my daughter was murdered," she said, adding she has not yet considered whether to sue anyone over her conviction.
Attorney Andrew LoTempio, who defended DeJac at her trial and successfully fought to have the conviction overturned last year, said that at the time of the trial, he was given the impression that the amount of cocaine found in Crystallynn's body was so small "it was a non issue in the case."
"You also had at the time an autopsy report several pages long indicating that the cause of death was manual strangulation," LoTempio said.
Dr. Michael Baden, a respected state police forensics expert called by Clark in December, said the first medical examiner may have misinterpreted a mark on the girl's neck made by her chin as a thumbprint, and that frothing from her mouth and nose _ a strong indicator of a drug overdose _ may have been wiped away by the time the autopsy was done.
Crystallynn had bruises on her head and a table in her bedroom was overturned, adding to the theory she was attacked, and there was some bleeding in her eyes typical in strangulation, Baden said. With no other obvious cause of death, he said, the 1993 finding "was sort of a diagnosis of exclusion."
His own review noted that Crystallynn's windpipe was not fractured and there was fluid in her lungs typically seen in drug overdoses, though he said she did not appear to be a regular drug user. The bruises to her head may have been the result of Crystallynn falling into the table while under the influence of drugs, he said.
DeJac's attorneys said they were reviewing the new findings, but appeared initially skeptical.
"The autopsy pointed conclusively to manual strangulation," said Steven Cohen, another of DeJac's attorneys. He said the toxicology report referred to a "minute" amount too small to be considered an overdose.
"After she spent 13 years in prison, it's interesting that they've come to that conclusion," Cohen said.
With DeJac adamant that her daughter never used cocaine, Cohen theorized the drug might have been transferred to Crystallynn's body during the attack by Donahue.
Donahue's attorney, Joseph Agro, said Wednesday he had not yet had time to review the new findings and declined comment.
"We have however from the beginning stated to the media and public that people should not rush to judgment, nor should they speculate," Agro said.
DeJac, meanwhile, said she was trying to put her life back together, including spending time with her teenage twin sons, who were born soon after she went to prison. When asked whether she felt at all responsible for Crystallynn's death she said: "I feel 100 percent guilty for leaving her home alone."
"Back then it was things you did, there were latchkey kids all over the place," she said. "I've paid in my own mind for doing that."
Baden said the case should send a message to defense attorneys to have their own experts examine findings.
"We know that mistakes are made," he said.