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On third try, justice system gets Donohue

This was the last chance.

This was the last swing at the pinata, the final turn at bat, the lone opportunity to put a possible serial killer behind bars.

The way I see it, the criminal-justice system blew it twice with Dennis Donohue. The third time had to be the charm.

It was. Thanks to the connect-the-dots legwork of Buffalo's renowned Cold Case Squad. Thanks to arguments from prosecutors Frank Sedita III and Kristen St. Mary. Thanks to a jury who listened and learned. Thanks to all of them, Dennis Donohue -- who may have killed three people -- will not kill again.

The jury took just six hours Monday night to convict Donohue of the 1993 strangulation of Joan Giambra. The recently separated mother was Donohue's occasional girlfriend.

I wish I could have written those words -- "convicted Dennis Donohue" -- 33 years ago. That is how long his trail of murder might be. If I had been able to write that back then, two people might be alive today.

Cold case detectives recently declared Donohue a "person of interest" in the 1975 strangulation of Carol Reed, who lived in the same apartment house as Donohue. No one was ever arrested in her killing. Police sources say evidence from the case has been lost. There will be no justice there.

I wish I could have written those words -- "convicted Dennis Donohue" -- 15 years ago. Crystallynn Girard, the 13-year-old daughter of part-time Donohue girlfriend Lynn DeJac, was found dead in her bedroom. DeJac alleged that Donohue stalked and threatened her that night and killed her daughter.

Despite the mother's words, the district attorney's office -- in a monumental blunder -- granted lifetime immunity to Donohue, who should have been a prime suspect. Instead, DeJac was arrested, convicted and wrongfully imprisoned for 14 years in her daughter's strangulation. She was recently freed after Buffalo cold case detectives found DNA evidence connecting Donohue to the crime.

Donohue's conviction Monday brought justice not just to the Giambra family; it nailed the man who, in the eyes of many, killed Crystallynn Girard.

"I'm ecstatic, very happy," DeJac told me on the phone. "It is an indirect victory for my daughter. [Donohue] will never be out on the street again to hurt anyone else."

Nine months after Crystallynn's 1993 death, Joan Giambra was found naked and strangled in her living room. Her 11-year-old daughter, Kathleen, lay naked next to her, throttled and apparently left for dead.

Trauma erased the memory of that night from Kathleen's mind. But Giambra left a message in traces of her attacker's skin, wedged under her fingernails as she scratched and fought for her life. Fifteen years later, Giambra's final battle helped to convict her murderer -- and a possible serial killer.

Cold case detectives last year asked Giambra's family to recall anything that might be important. Giambra's oldest daughter, Jackie, recalled that her mother dated a bartender at the Southside Grill named Dennis and that her mother was afraid of him. It was the thread that led to a killer. Detective Charlie Aronica remembered Dennis Donohue as the bartender at Southside Grill whom Lynn DeJac also dated.

Cold Case Detectives Aronica and
Lissa Redmond last September visited Donohue. He denied knowing Joan
Giambra, then later admitted to a one-time sexual encounter months before her death. He gave detectives a DNA swab. Lab analysis matched Donohue's DNA to the skin found under Giambra's fingernails.

Donohue was charged with Giambra's killing. He was convicted Monday night. It was the justice system's last shot at a possible serial killer.

This time, the system did not screw up.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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