SAN DIEGO (CN) — On a Sunday afternoon more than twenty years ago, Jane Dorotik’s husband Robert headed out for a jog.
He never returned home, and the San Diego Sheriff’s Department later found his body in a wooded area nearby.
Despite her pleas of innocence, Jane Dorotik was arrested for the killing and spent nearly two decades behind bars before she was exonerated last year. Prosecutors tried to bring new charges against her in 2020 but ultimately dropped them.
Now, Dorotik is accusing the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department and other officials of fabricating evidence and ignoring other exculpatory evidence that she says would have cleared her name.
"Jane spent nearly 20 years in prison for a crime she did not commit, before being released on a writ of habeas corpus due to the malfeasance of the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, its Regional Crime Lab and the San Diego District Attorney’s Office," said Barry Litt, Dorotik's lawyer from the Pasadena firm McLane, Bednarski & Litt, in a statement.
A spokesperson for San Diego County, also a named defendant in the complaint, did not respond to requests for comment before press time.
Dorotik claims her "wrongful conviction was the result of police misconduct, set within a broader custom and practice within the San Diego Sheriff’s Department" and other agencies, including the "deliberate indifference to the due process rights of individuals."
Dorotik also says that San Diego Sheriff’s Department officers and crime lab employees suppressed and mischaracterized exculpatory evidence in police reports that pointed at other suspects — including forensic evidence. She claims this evidence was not made available to herself or her attorneys during her trial.
According to the lawsuit, the many problems with Dorotik's case all began with a hunch.
Richard Empson, a detective for the sheriff's department, had testified that he stopped looking for other suspects within two weeks of the murder because he “knew” Dorotik killed her husband, Dorotik claims.
Following her "premature" arrest, Dorotik says sheriff's officials conducted their "entire investigation" based on this hunch that she was guilty. To this end, Dorotik claims a variety of "acts of malfeasance" by investigators, including "selectively" testing DNA evidence based on this hunch and leaving "critical blood evidence [...] unsealed and unsecured for weeks at a time."
Among the officials named in the complaint are Bonnie Howard-Regan and Kurt Mechals, two San Diego assistant district attorneys who handled the case. Dorotik says they mispresented evidence, elicited and failed to correct false testimony, and called on expert witnesses they knew were not qualified.
Even after Dorotik was convicted, she claims irregularities continued in her case. After she sought DNA testing to prove her evidence in 2016, the sheriff's department's crime lab "conducted the testing in a manner designed to avoid obtaining exculpating evidence." Further testing by an independent lab found her DNA on neither her husband nor a rope used in the murder, according to the lawsuit.
"Important exculpatory evidence was withheld; the results of scientific reports were falsified; blood, DNA and other scientific evidence was misrepresented," Litt said. "The list goes on."
In 2020, the sheriff's department agreed that Dorotik's original conviction should be overturned after authorities discovered "voluminous" evidence that was "never provided to the defense," according to the suit. Prosecutors attempted to bring charges again at a new trial, only to drop them in 2022.
Litt said the attempt to re-prosecute Dorotik was an "egregious abuse of governmental power, one that unfortunately remains all too common."
On the day those charges were finally dropped, Dorotik told reporters that the end of her case was a "huge relief."
"This has been a torturous journey for 22 years and it's finally over," she said. Now, though, the headaches could just be beginning for authorities involved in her case.
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