Thursday, 14 February 2008

Mom Exonerated After 13 Years in Prison

Lynn Dejac, right, along with her defense attorney, Andrew LoTempio, listen to Judge John Michalski's bail hearing ruling in the State Supreme Court in Buffalo, N.Y. on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007. The judge ruled in favor of Lynn DeJac's motion to have her second-degree murder conviction thrown out after newly tested DNA evidence revealed a man was at the crime scene. (Don Heupel/AP Photo)

Carolyn Thompson, AP Writer

BUFFALO — A woman who spent 13 years in prison after being convicted of strangling her 13-year-old daughter has been exonerated by forensic evidence showing she died of a cocaine overdose, a prosecutor in the case said Wednesday.

But even as the district attorney announced that the death of Crystallynn Girard was not a homicide and could not be prosecuted, her now 44-year-old mother, Lynn DeJac, insisted that a former boyfriend was responsible.

"It's not going to stay like this. My daughter was not a drug user ... My daughter was murdered. There's no question my daughter was murdered," she said, adding she has not yet considered whether to sue anyone over her conviction.

She was released from prison and her second-degree murder conviction overturned in November after newly analyzed DNA evidence placed DeJac's former boyfriend, Dennis Donahue, in the bedroom of her daughter around the time the girl died.

Prosecutors had been planning to retry her this spring, saying the DNA found in her daughter's body and bed did nothing to refute the circumstantial evidence that led a jury to convict DeJac of killing the girl after a night of heavy drinking.

It was in reviewing evidence for the upcoming trial that the prosecution's forensics experts made the stunning find that the girl died of "acute cocaine intoxication" and was not slain, Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark announced.

Cocaine was found in the girl's system at the time of her death, he said, but it was ignored at trial because prosecution and defense lawyers thought the amount too small to be relevant.

All charges against DeJac will be dismissed, Clark said.

Donahue remains in custody awaiting trial in the strangulation of a woman in 1993 and has been described as a person of interest in a 1975 strangling. He couldn't have been prosecuted in Crystallynn's case anyway because he had immunity for testifying against DeJac in 1993.

An emotional DeJac said she was relieved to be cleared of the charges but remained convinced that Donahue killed her daughter. And she said she would do "anything and everything" to clear Crystallynn's name.

"It was definitely not drugs. It is not the case," she said.

Dr. Michael Baden, a respected state police forensics expert called by Clark in December, said that the first medical examiner may have misinterpreted a mark on the girl's neck made by her chin as a thumbprint, and that frothing from her mouth and nose — a strong indicator of a drug overdose — may have been wiped away by the time the autopsy was done.

With DeJac adamant that her daughter never used cocaine, her attorney Steven Cohen theorized the drug might have transferred to Crystallynn's body during an attack by Donahue.

Donahue's attorney, Joseph Agro, said Wednesday that he had not had time to review the new findings.

"We have, however, from the beginning stated to the media and public that people should not rush to judgment, nor should they speculate," Agro said.

DeJac, meanwhile, said she was trying to put her life back together, including spending time with her teenage twin sons, who were born soon after she went to prison. When asked whether she felt at all responsible for Crystallynn's death she said: "I feel 100 percent guilty for leaving her home alone."

"Back then it was things you did, there were latchkey kids all over the place," she said. "I've paid in my own mind for doing that."


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