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Jack Sagin

Other California exonerations with DNA evidence
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On the morning of Monday, July 15, 1985, the body of 40-year-old Paula Durocher was found in her apartment in Monterey, California. She was clad only in a bathrobe and had been stabbed multiple times. Two blood-stained towels were draped over her legs.

A loveseat appeared to have been pushed back against a wall. On the floor, police found a notebook with torn out pages that appeared to have fallen off the coffee or end table. Police found a gold necklace, a broken earring, and an overturned coffee cup near Durocher’s body.

There was no sign of forced entry and the television was on. The apartment did not appear to be ransacked. A half-eaten steak was on a plate on the kitchen table—although the autopsy later showed Durocher’s stomach was empty.

The crime remained unsolved until October 1985 when two men, Louis Graxiola and Robert Castaneda, reported that 39-year-old Jack Sagin had admitted to the crime while all three were being held in the Monterey County Jail.

At the time, Sagin was being held on burglary charges. Graxiola, who had been arrested on a theft charge and formerly had been a police informant, said Sagin told him he was burglarizing Durocher’s apartment when she surprised him and they “kind of fought.” Castaneda, also a known informant, said that after he gave Sagin a muscle relaxant, Sagin admitted that Durocher surprised him during a burglary and he stabbed her three times in the heart.

On February 18, 1986, Sagin was charged with Durocher’s murder. He went to trial in Monterey County Superior Court in July 1986. A medical examiner testified that Durocher was stabbed five times with a thin blade similar to a kitchen knife. There was a superficial wound to her head, a wound to the jugular vein in her neck, and three wounds that pierced her heart. She also had a lacerated ear, bruises on her lip, and an abrasion on her check—probably from being smothered by a couch cushion, the medical examiner said.

Durocher’s thumbs were bruised, which suggested holding something very tightly or squeezing. There was a cut near the second knuckle of the left hand. The examiner opined that Durocher’s hand injuries were defensive wounds and that she was killed sometime between 18 and 40 hours before her body was discovered.

Durocher’s son testified that he spoke to his mother between 10:30 and 11 a.m. on Saturday. She said she would call him back because she was taking a shower, but she didn’t return the call.

Ronald Jeter, a co-worker of Durocher, testified that he visited her at the apartment around 10:30 a.m. He said he brought her a silver dollar he had purchased on a company trip to Las Vegas earlier in the week. He said he was there for about a half hour and left. When he left, she was wearing jeans, a top, and was barefoot. Jeter also said that Durocher told him she planned to meet some people to go shopping in the afternoon and then was going to dinner, but did not say whom she was meeting.

Robert Causey, another co-worker who also was Durocher’s boyfriend, testified that he had been at the apartment from 6 to 10 p.m. on Friday, July 12. A police report said that he told officers that they had sex. He said he called her twice on Saturday—at 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., but there was no answer.

Russel Wydler, who was identified in police reports as a possible suspect early in the investigation, testified that he had been in an on-again off-again boyfriend of Durocher. He once had been physically escorted out of the apartment by Durocher’s daughter, Anita Campo, and her daughter’s fiancé. Wydler was also an acquaintance of Sagin. He told the jury that Sagin was in his car once when Wydler went to Durocher’s apartment to borrow $40. He said he “might have” brought up that Durocher often kept her back door open. He also said that he told Sagin that Durocher kept a key to the front door under a flower pot in front of the apartment.

Wydler admitted that at Sagin’s preliminary hearing, he had denied under oath that he introduced Sagin to Durocher or discussed Durocher with Sagin in any way. However, he claimed that he did so because at that time he was afraid for his own safety.

The prosecution also called Melissa Sorenson, who was the 13-year-old daughter of Lynn Nance, a woman who committed burglaries with Sagin. Sorenson testified that Sagin had moved into her family’s motel room in early July 1985 after her mother’s husband was deployed by the U.S. Army. Sorenson said that Sagin came to the room one night in July mumbling that he “hit her” and that “(s)he’s hurt bad.” Sorenson admitted she had not recalled this until seven months after the murder, while police were interrogating her mother about Sagin’s possible involvement in the crime.

Graxiola testified that Sagin told him he knew Durocher through Wydler, and that he and Wydler went to Durocher’s apartment to burglarize it because Wydler said Durocher would not be home. Graxiola said that Durocher confronted them and she was killed during a fight. Graxiola also said that Sagin first said Wydler killed her, and later said he had killed her.

Castaneda testified that Sagin told him he stabbed Durocher three times in the heart after she “popped out of nowhere” during his burglary and that he later threw the knife he used “off of Cannery Row.” Castaneda said Sagin referred to Durocher as Wydler’s girlfriend or wife. Castaneda—in contrast to Graxiola’s testimony—said Sagin claimed to have committed the crime alone.

Graxiola and Castaneda, both of whom had extensive criminal records, admitted they had been police informants in the past and had gotten leniency on pending cases in return.

Sagin’s defense lawyer presented testimony from Sagin’s mother, sister, brother-in-law, and a close friend of Sagin’s sister, all of whom testified that Sagin had been at his mother’s house in San Jose the weekend of the murder.

On July 16, 1986, the jury convicted Sagin of first-degree murder and first-degree burglary. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole. His conviction was upheld by the California Court of Appeal in June 1988.

In June 1989, Sagin filed a state petition for a writ of habeas corpus seeking DNA testing of hairs that had been recovered from the apartment. The petition was denied in September 1989. It was not until 2001 that California enacted legislation granting the right to post-conviction DNA testing.

He filed several more petitions over the next several years and all were denied. He filed a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus in 1998. That was denied in 2000, and his request for permission to appeal was denied.

In 2002, Sagin requested help from the newly-founded Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) at Santa Clara University School of Law. His case was one of the first the project accepted for review. In 2009, NCIP filed a motion for DNA testing, which was granted.

Between 2009 and 2012, private and government forensic laboratories performed testing on more than a dozen items of evidence, including the scrapings from Durocher’s fingernails, the rape kit, and the bloody towels. DNA was found on the bathrobe, the towels, the vaginal swabs, the hair from the couch cushion found near Durocher’s head, and from the scrapings of Durocher’s fingernails. None of it was Sagin’s DNA.

Instead the testing revealed the DNA of five men, including Jeter, who visited her on the morning of her death, as well as Durocher’s former boyfriend Daniel Baudour, and Robert Causey.

The DNA from the hair that was on the cushion that was believed to have been used to smother Durocher was identified as Baudour’s. In addition, Baudour’s DNA was on one of the blood-stained towels, and his semen was on Durocher’s bathrobe. Causey’s semen also was found on the bathrobe, and on the vaginal and rectal swabs from the rape kit.

The tests revealed Jeter’s DNA on the towels. The DNA from the fingernail scrapings was from an unidentified male. This unknown profile was submitted to state and federal DNA databases, but the profile was not linked to anyone.

In 2010 and 2011, while the testing was going on, the case was being re-investigated. Investigator Ryan McGuirk of the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office interviewed Jeter twice. In his first interview, he said that he had been in Los Angeles for job training—not Las Vegas. For the first time, he also said that before he came over to the apartment, he went for a run on the beach and that he got to the apartment around 8 or 8:30 a.m. During the visit, he said, Durocher broke something in the bathroom, and he helped her clean it up.

During a second interview in 2011, Jeter changed his story to say that Durocher dropped a drinking glass in the kitchen. He said he helped her clean it up using a white towel that he first said was already there and then said he may have brought it with him because he usually ran with towel round his neck. Jeter had not been told where his DNA had been found. He said he took a garbage bag with the broken glass with him when he left and threw it in a dumpster outside. When asked if he had thrown the towel away, Jeter began to cry.

Also in 2011, an investigator for NCIP interviewed Wydler, who was living in Lumberton, North Carolina. Wydler said that police had threatened to charge him with the murder, but that he was granted immunity in return for his testimony against Sagin. Wydler said his testimony was false—he never told Sagin about a key under a flower pot or that Durocher was going to be gone from her apartment. Wydler, however, refused to sign a sworn affidavit, however, saying that unnamed people in California were pressuring him to not get involved.

In December 2012, NCIP lawyers Melissa O’Connell and Kelley Fleming filed a state law petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the California Court of Appeal based on the DNA test results and Wydler’s recantation. Subsequently, Sagin’s legal team was joined by lawyers from the law firm of Shearman and Sterling LLP, including Emily Griffen, John Nathanson, and Lisa Valenti-Jordan. On May 12, 2014, the appeals court sent the case back to the Superior Court. On June 1, 2014, Wydler died. Thirteen months later, in July 2015, the Superior Court denied the petition without a hearing.

In August 2015, the appeals court ordered an evidentiary hearing. At the time, in order to obtain habeas relief under California law, Sagin had to present newly discovered evidence that would undermine the prosecution’s entire case and “point unerringly to innocence or reduced culpability.”

Before the evidentiary hearing was held, the California Legislature passed a bill that changed the standard governing petitions based on newly discovered evidence. The law provided that a petition could be granted when new evidence “exists that is credible, material, presented without substantial delay, and of such decisive force and value that it would have more likely than not changed the outcome at trial.”

On April 5, 2017, Monterey County Superior Court Judge Julie Culver conducted the evidentiary hearing. A DNA expert testified on behalf of Sagin that it was unlikely for a perpetrator not to leave behind any DNA during such a violent struggle as appeared to have occurred in Durocher’s apartment. A DNA expert testified for the prosecution that the “more violent the crime gets, the harder it is to not leave anything behind.” The expert also said, however, that he could not rule out the possibility of contamination of the fingernail scrapings. At the same time, he said, he could not “argue strongly for it.”

In May 2017, Judge Culver denied the petition.

On August 30, 2019, California's Sixth District Court of Appeal reversed Judge Culver and granted the petition. The court held that under the new standard, Sagin was entitled to a new trial. “The change in the law represents an overall lower tolerance for wrongful convictions,” the court said. “The Legislature has chosen to more closely protect society’s interest in ensuring that a person convicted of a crime is the person who committed it.”

The court noted that the case “was close. In the end, there was no physical evidence linking Sagin to the crime.” As a result, the court declared, the newly discovered DNA evidence would have raised a reasonable doubt in the jury’s mind.

Specifically, the court pointed to the unidentified DNA under Durocher’s fingernails. “This is powerful evidence the victim was killed by someone other than Jack Sagin,” the court said. “And it is very likely that Ms. Durocher’s hands came into contact with her killer—there was an extended struggle, long enough for her to sustain multiple facial injuries and to be smothered with a couch cushion and stabbed five times.”

On October 10, the prosecution dismissed the charges.

The following day, Sagin was released from prison after more than 33 years in custody. He was met by his sister as well as his lawyers from NCIP, Melissa O’Connell and Kelley Fleming, as well as NCIP co-founders Linda Starr and Cookie Ridolfi.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 10/25/2019
State:California
County:Monterey
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Burglary/Unlawful Entry
Reported Crime Date:1985
Convicted:1986
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:39
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes*