(CN) – A California appeals court vacated the conviction Friday of a man who has spent the last three decades in prison, finding DNA evidence found at the scene of the crime and tested almost a decade ago does not belong to him.
In 1986, a jury convicted Jack Sagin in the stabbing death of Paula Durocher. Durocher lived alone in a Monterey apartment and was discovered hours after the killing by her daughter.
While police initially had no suspects, months after the murder two inmates at the Monterey County Jail claimed Sagin had confessed to killing Durocher. Both inmates were informants who had tipped off police multiple times in the past, according to the ruling.
In 2009, the Northern California Innocence Project represented Sagin and identified several items found by Monterey Police which could be tested for DNA, including vaginal swabs taken from Durocher, hairs found on her back and scrapings taken from under her fingernails. None of the DNA matched Sagin, according to Friday’s ruling by the Sixth Appellate District.
The scrapings from under Durocher’s fingernails contained DNA from an unknown male, which could not have been known in 1986 due to primitive DNA testing technology.
Writing for the three-judge panel, Associate Justice Adrienne Grover noted the testimony offered by the two prison informants and a 13-year-old girl who lived in the motel unit where Sagin was staying. The jury also heard from four alibi witnesses who claimed Sagin was in San Jose at the time of the murder.
“This case was close,” Grover wrote in the 16-page opinion. “In the end, there was no physical evidence linking Sagin to the crime. The jury therefore had to decide which witnesses to believe.”
While the absence of Sagin’s DNA on the tested items did not preclude Sagin’s involvement, the DNA of an unknown male taken from the victim’s fingernails told a much different story, Grover said.
“That is powerful evidence the victim was killed by someone other than Jack Sagin. It indicates that shortly before she died, Ms. Durocher had close contact with a man whose identity is still not known,” Grover wrote. “Under those circumstances, it is more likely than not that at least one juror would have maintained a reasonable doubt regarding guilt.”
The DNA evidence, had the defense been able to show it to the jury in 1986, would have very likely changed the outcome of the trial and Sagin would have been exonerated, the panel found.
“The district attorney may elect within the time allowed by law to conduct a retrial. Unless there is a timely election to retry Sagin, he is ordered released,” Grover wrote.
Monterey County Chief Assistant District Attorney Berkley Brannon noted in an email the Legislature in 2016 changed the standard for review of new evidence from “unerringly points to innocence” to “more likely than not would change the outcome at trial.”
As for whether the DA’s office will retry Sagin, Brannon said several factors – including a possible petition for review to the high court and consultation with the victim’s family – will be considered before a decision is made.