Anyone smart enough to be a juror is smart enough to know this about the case against Lynn DeJac: It is riddled with reasonable doubt. Chances are she wouldn't even be indicted today for the murder of her daughter, let alone convicted.
The question of granting a DeJac a new trial rests with Erie County Senior Judge Michael L. D'Amico, because Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark implausibly says nothing has changed. The evidence that was used to convict her remains in play, he said, and if it convicted her once, it could do it again.
But that's a fatally blinkered view of the case. The recent identification of DNA evidence at the murder scene -- inside of 13-year-old Crystallynn Girard, on her sheets and in blood on the wall -- all but proves DeJac's former boyfriend, Dennis Donahue, who shares those DNA characteristics with only one in every 1,170 males, was in Crystallynn Girard's bedroom. That wouldn't prove when Donahue was there, but the man is a newly arrested suspect in 1993 killing that bear similarities to Crystallynn's murder. It's not hard to guess what a new jury would think, especially in light of DeJac's unflagging history of protesting her innocence.
It's true that the evidence prosecutors used against DeJac was enough to convince a jury 13 years ago, but that jury never heard about Donahue's DNA. It wasn't aware that Donahue would later be charged with a similar crime. That evidence may not be enough to bring a murder charge against Donahue -- but the murder conviction of DeJac would collapse under the weight of the reasonable doubt that now soaks this case.
And even that evidence is flabby. The key to the conviction was testimony from a former family friend who said DeJac confessed the crime to him in a bar. But he was facing a forgery charge and, with two previous convictions, the sentence could have been stiff. He had reason to make prosecutors like him.
The case may also have been influenced by another uncomfortable fact: DeJac was a lousy mother to Crystallynn. She was a heavy drinker who loved barhopping, jurors heard. She had four children with three different fathers, one of whom sexually abused Crystallynn before she was 10 -- easy to do when the mother doesn't show much interest. Crystallynn often helped a younger brother get ready for school because her mother was hung over.
That hardly paints a sympathetic picture. Indeed, it's the kind of detail that disposes a jury -- or anyone -- to believe that worse things could have happened. Maybe they did, but murder doesn't appear to be one of them. No one, not even a lousy mother, deserves to spend 13 years in prison for a crime she may not have committed.
And that's the point. Given new evidence, and the possibility of recanted testimony, there's enough new here that a jury should make a decision -- one way or the other.
We're not sure what Clark's motives are in opposing a new trial. He may simply be letting the system, which is meant to be adversarial, play out in court. He may be embarrassed by the second appearance in less than a year that the DA's office put the wrong person in prison. Or he may feel trapped, as University at Buffalo law professor Charles P. Ewing speculated. If he agrees to a new trial, he may be seen as tacitly agreeing DeJac would not be convicted again.
But, as Ewing also observed, the answer to any of these worries is for Clark to point out the obvious: that the DA's office did the best job it could with the evidence it had 13 years ago, but that powerful new evidence requires new consideration.
The commitment has to be not simply to process, but to justice. Serious new evidence practically shouts that justice was miscarried in this case. It's up to D'Amico now to begin the job of fixing that.