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Innocence Projects Pursue New Trial for Man Convicted in 1996 Kalkaska Homicide

By Jenny Whalen
Feb. 7, 2014

Michigan Innocence Clinic student attorney A.J. Dixon had only been reading the transcripts from Jamie Lee Peterson's 1996 confession to the sexual assault and murder of Geraldine Montgomery for a little over an hour when he realized that something was terribly wrong.

"My partner and I looked at each other and said, 'Good God, what happened here?'" the 3L remembers. "It was so apparent when reading the confession transcript that Jamie didn't know the basic facts of the crime. Any time Jamie was given the option to guess a detail of the crime, the first time out he got it wrong."

Caitlin Plummer (left) and A.J. Dixon (right) discuss the Peterson case.

Peterson's attorneys from the Michigan Innocence Clinic and Northwestern University School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions (CWC) firmly believe their client's 1997 conviction was based on these false confessions and, given new DNA evidence in the case, the original conviction should be vacated and a new trial granted.

Shortly before 3 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 6, Peterson's attorneys filed a motion for relief from judgment on behalf of the 39-year-old in Kalkaska County Court. This motion asks that the court order an evidentiary hearing and new trial for Peterson.

"This is a significant step towards getting justice for Jamie Peterson," said Caitlin Plummer, '11, a teaching fellow in the Innocence Clinic and lead attorney on the case. "We look forward to the opportunity to make our case in court. The new evidence of Jamie’s innocence is overwhelming. At the very least, he deserves a new trial.”

Montgomery, a 68-year-old resident of Kalkaska, was found raped and murdered in October 1996. Semen from the perpetrator was found both inside the victim and mixed with her saliva on her shirt. Four months later, during a series of inconsistent and inaccurate statements to police, Peterson confessed to the rape and murder. However, after DNA testing conducted on the rape kit conclusively excluded Peterson as the donor, police decided that there must have been two perpetrators. Since the primitive DNA technology at the time was unable to identify the source of the shirt stain, Peterson was convicted on the theory that he committed the crime with an unknown accomplice and that Peterson was likely responsible for the stain on the shirt.

This past spring, Peterson's former attorney, Al Millstein, asked Innocence Clinic Director David Moran, '91, to re-examine this case. Despite claims that there was an unknown perpetrator at large, the previous Kalkaska County prosecutor had rebuffed efforts by Millstein and attorney Robert Carey of Kalkaska to conduct advanced DNA testing using new technology on behalf of Peterson. The Innocence Clinic, which had focused exclusively on non-DNA cases up to that point, teamed up with the CWC to ask the new Kalkaska County prosecutor to agree to the testing.

After meeting with attorneys and students from the Innocence Clinic and CWC, the new prosecutor agreed that further examination was needed. New DNA testing supported by the Innocence Clinic and CWC was conducted this past summer and fall. Those new tests identified convicted felon Jason Anthony Ryan as a match for both the semen in the rape kit as well as the semen mixed with the victim's saliva on her shirt. Ryan was arrested Dec. 2, 2013.

Attorneys for Peterson note that now that DNA testing has shown that the semen in the rape kit matches that on the shirt, all of the physical evidence now matches just a single man, Jason Ryan. Ryan, who is known to have been staying just two blocks from Montgomery's home at the time of the murder, was interviewed in 1997 as part of the original investigation, with police even taking a saliva sample from him. However, that sample was apparently never tested.

"The jurors never got to hear this extremely powerful evidence," Plummer said. "They never heard that all of the DNA matched to one man – a man with whom Jamie has no connection. If they had, they would have seen his confessions in an entirely different light and very likely acquitted him.”

In almost all cases of false confession, the process is the same, said Joshua Tepfer, an attorney with the CWC and clinical assistant professor at Northwestern Law. "The individual is trying to guess at facts of the crime and they keep getting it wrong. As law enforcement correct them, they end up contaminating the evidence."

"Peterson was convicted entirely on his false confessions," Moran added. "We're hopeful that the judge will order a new trial."

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