Exonerated mother says daughter’s killer still free
The first woman ever freed by DNA rejects new finding that teen overdosed
By Mike Celizic
updated 10:10 a.m. ET, Fri., Feb. 29, 2008
On her first full day of freedom since being cleared by DNA evidence of the 1993 murder of her daughter, Lynn DeJac said that she can’t be at peace until the real killer is brought to justice and a new autopsy finding that the girl died of an overdose is reversed.
“It’s very hard to accept the fact they’re now putting this on the death certificate,” DeJac told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira. “My daughter did not use drugs. My daughter was not a drug user. My daughter was an honor-roll student. It’s horrible that [the death certificate] now reads cocaine.”
It is yet another strange twist to a tawdry tragedy. DeJac had been convicted of the strangulation death of her 13-year-old daughter, Crystallynn Girard, in 1994. The primary witness against her was her former boyfriend, Dennis Donahue, who was granted immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony.
Two years ago, a Buffalo, N.Y., police detective, Dennis Delano, was working on another case involving Donahue for the department’s cold-case unit when he uncovered DNA evidence that linked Donahue to Crystallynn’s death. Based on his findings, Donahue was charged with a different strangulation murder, and DeJac was released from prison last November after 13 years.
DeJac was free but not clear of all charges. As long as Crystallynn’s death remained a homicide, Buffalo prosecutors wanted to bring her to trial again for contributing to the death. It was only on Thursday, one day after Dr. Michael Baden, the prominent former New York City medical examiner, determined Crystallynn had died of an accidental drug overdose, that prosecutors dismissed all charges.
The 44-year-old DeJac said she was willing to be tried again to get the truth out about her daughter’s death. “There was a possibility I could have went back to prison for 12 more years,” she said. “I was willing to go if it meant going to a trial so the truth could come out.”
DeJac was 16 years old when she gave birth to Crystallynn. Five years later, she had a son by another man. When Crystallynn was 10, she was sexually abused by the man with whom DeJac was then living, and he spent time in jail.
At the time of the murder, DeJac was portrayed in the local newspapers as a woman who drank heavily and often left her two children home alone while she either worked at her mother’s tavern, located six doors down from her home, or was out drinking.
“I’m not saying I was a saint,” DeJac said. “I wasn’t a saint by no means.” Still, she told Vieira, she was not a bad mother.
“I know what happened,” she said. “No one else knows what happened as far as what our lives were like. I lived in a house that was six doors from where I lived. I could literally see my home outside the window from where I worked.”
Night of drinking
DeJac went to a wedding on the day that Crystallynn died and then continued the party with a longtime boyfriend. She returned home in the evening, only to find Donahue there. Fearing a conflict between Donahue and her boyfriend, she left again to drink some more. When she returned many hours later, Crystallynn was dead in a room that was spattered with blood.
With Donahue the prime witness against her and her history of drinking provoking outrage in the community, DeJac was convicted of the murder.
It wasn’t until 2006 that Delano and others in the Buffalo Police Department’s cold-case squad became interested in her case. He would become so convinced of her innocence that he went to Washington, D.C., to pursue the investigation on his own time and money.
When he came forward with his findings, old police tapes of the murder scene and of a lie detector test administered to Donahue were leaked to a local TV station. Delano, who remains convinced that Donahue and not cocaine killed Crystallynn, was blamed for the leaks and suspended with pay from the department on Wednesday.
Chuck Peters, who married DeJac after she was imprisoned, called the detective “a true American hero, a very hard-working man … Right now, we’re kind of outraged that Dennis Delano is under suspension for doing his job. He’s a very dedicated, hard-working man.”
It’s one more thing DeJac has to deal with in her new life of freedom.
The first thing she had to do when she came home in November was get to know the twin sons she gave birth to in February 1994, just before she went to prison. The boys had been raised by their father, Chuck Peters.
For 13 years, Peters told Vieira, he told his twin sons that someday their mother would come home.
“She never spent an evening with them, she never put them to bed, never was able to read them a story,” said Peters. They saw her infrequently when they were young and hadn’t seen her at all for years because she was incarcerated more than eight hours from Buffalo. But Peters told them about her.
“I just wanted them to know who their mother was and that someday maybe we’d be a family again,” Peters said.
DeJac said being falsely imprisoned for killing her own daughter was “horrible.” When Vieira asked her how she coped, she said, “I was suicidal all the time.”
But when she thought of killing herself, she also thought of what that would mean. “I felt if I did that then it would go down that I was the killer of my daughter. So that would bring me out of it; friends would bring me out of it.”
Vieira asked how she’s coping with everything that’s happened since she’s been released.
“One moment at a time is how you pick ’em up,” she said. “Things come up, things happen, you deal with them.”