NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- A man convicted in 1995 of murdering his wife near Mount Snow will have a chance at freedom after utilizing a law sought by Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears.
John Grega, 50, appeared in Windham County Court Thursday for a status hearing on his case. Grega is using the Innocence Protection Act, passed in 2008, to seek his freedom based on new analysis of DNA evidence found on his wife's body that does not match his own.
Sears, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he worked with the Innocence Project, an advocacy group that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people.
"It all started when the Innocence Project folks contacted me," Sears said. "I got talking with them and learned more and more about it. The whole attitude was, if somebody was ever wrongly convicted, we needed a process to deal with it," Sears said.
At the time, Vermont was among a small group of states that did not have such a law, Sears said. "They convinced me it would be a good idea that Vermont have some kind of process," he said.
Improvements in technology have provided new ways to analyze DNA. In some cases, like the murder of Sarah Hunter in Manchester about 25 years ago, DNA has helped crack cold cases. In other situations, convicted murderers are using newly available DNA evidence to try to prove their innocence.
Grega, from Long Island, was convicted of aggravated murder and aggravated sexual assault for raping and killing of his wife, Christine in 1994. The couple were on vacation with their 2-year-old son in West Dover when 31-year-old Christine Grega was killed.
Grega's lawyers have filed a motion in court seeking his release, or a new trial, stating that DNA samples recently tested by the state's crime lab showed that the samples found on Christine Grega's body did not belong to him.
Several outcomes are now possible in the case because of the law, the first time it is being used in the state by a convicted felon seeking exoneration. The court could reject the motion, vacate the sentence, reduce the sentence to time served or order a new trial, according to Sears.
"It gives ability for somebody to go through a process to either ask for a new trial or to have the sentence vacated," he said. "It's not a slam dunk, but at least it's providing a process."
Sears said some persecutors and law enforcement officials were opposed to the law, believing it would cause frivolous filings by convicts seeking their freedom. "Quite frankly, it hasn't turned out that way," he said.
Sears said some officials identified convicts who were likely to use the new law frivolously. Sears said he was glad the first use of the law was not among them. "I was relieved it was not one of them, that it was somebody that I hadn't heard of," he said.
Sears said he has no opinion about whether Grega is guilty or not. But now there is a process that will allow the new evidence to be vetted, he said.
"I was very thankful that we have a process that will allow us to make a determination if this guy is really guilty or not," he said. "If he's not, then we better start looking for whoever this DNA matches."
The law is working as it should and allowing a process for new DNA evidence to be heard by a judge, Sears said.
"If somebody is wrongly convicted, that's just a horrible miscarriage of justice. But it also means that somebody is out there that committed the crime that hasn't been found and may have committed other crimes," Sears said. "It would be naive for Vermont to think that this could never happen here, that we wouldn't have somebody that was wrongly convicted in jail. You realize that, throughout the years, this can happen. The justice system is made up of human beings."