Life is unfair. There is no other conclusion to be drawn from this. So cross your fingers and hope for the best. Pray that an awful disease does not prematurely end your days. Make a wish that a speeding car or a wayward bus doesn’t cut you down. And beg, if need be, that the litany of calamities that beset Lynn DeJac Peters does not stop at your door.
She was the unluckiest person I have ever known. The woman who suffered too much in life died quietly in her sleep Wednesday at her South Buffalo home. Diagnosed with terminal cancer last year, she was 50 years old.
I feel awfully sad for a woman who deserved better than she got. I feel awfully sad for the family with whom – because of our flawed justice system – she spent too little time.
It was as if God – for reasons unfathomable – decided to make her the punch line of a bad joke. It was as if fate used her to display its twisted sense of humor. She might have been a descendant of Job, so punishing were the tests and trials she endured.
I do not want to underestimate the happiness she ultimately found. I do not want to overlook the devotion of the husband, Chuck Peters, who never doubted her. Most of all, I do not want to minimize the courage and perseverance she demonstrated, up through her final days. All of that is, I think, her ultimate legacy.
She showed the world how much affliction one person can endure. She proved how heavy a load someone can carry, and still carry on. As admirable as that effort and accomplishment was, hers was not a cross that anyone should have to bear.
Like the old blues song says, if it wasn’t for bad luck, she would have had no luck at all.
DeJac Peters in 1993 was a single mom working two jobs when she suffered the loss, likely to murder, of her 13-year-old daughter, Crystallynn. She lived the Hitchcockian nightmare of being falsely accused – and, worse, wrongfully convicted – of killing the girl. She was demonized in court by overzealous prosecutors, who – despite her protests – handed immunity to the likely killer.
The small, thin woman with a waterfall of dark hair served nearly 14 years in prison, branded as a child-killer. Prison snatched newborn twins from her arms and kept her away from Peters, whose faith – despite her 25-year sentence – never faltered. She was freed seven years ago by unearthed DNA evidence that implicated Dennis Donohue, the man she initially had accused, in Crystallynn’s death.
Justice eventually caught up with Donohue, who in a resurrected 2008 “cold case” was finally convicted of killing a woman in 1993 and leaving her daughter for dead, just months after Crystallynn’s death. Although reunited seven years ago with the twins whose childhood she missed, DeJac Peters endured further emotional abuse from unrepentant prosecutors, led by then-District Attorney Frank Clark.
Finally, two years ago, state officials granted her $2.7 million in restitution for the wrongfully “lost” 14 years.
Suddenly, life was good.
Just as suddenly, it wasn’t. The compensation check – most of which went to taxes and lawyers – had not yet arrived when, 18 months ago, she felt a pain in her back.
It wasn’t a muscle ache. It was Stage 4 lung cancer.
“It’s one bad hand after another,” she told me at the time. “I never seem to catch a break.”
I remember going to see her, soon after the diagnosis, in the house she shared with Peters – a granite-faced, soft-spoken handyman – and their kids. She walked into the dining room, steadying herself on a dresser and tabletop before collapsing into a chair. A tray with plastic compartments was filled with daily doses of a half-dozen pills.
Although vowing to fight, she understood what lay before her.
“She was in a lot of pain; it wasn’t easy,” Peters told me Wednesday. “She was down to 80 pounds, but she fought until the end.”
Once someone is stained with a false label, it’s hard to wash it away. Even after she was cleared, people condemned her as a “bad mother” who shouldn’t have left Crystallynn alone to attend a friend’s wedding. If DeJac Peters made a mistake that fateful night, it was one she paid an unconscionable price for – and would have given anything to undo.
All of which, at this point, doesn’t much matter.
“I think she found some peace, a sense of herself, getting back with our family,” Peters told me. “We had her home here for seven years; she was pretty happy.”
DeJac Peters told me last year that if she didn’t make it, she believed she would be reunited in the afterlife with the daughter who doubled as her best friend. She believed that a long, hard, unlucky life would have a happy ending.
For her sake, for their sake, I hope she was right.