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State agrees to pay $1.55 million to settle Grega case

John Grega died in a 2015 car crash, but his family had continued to pursue legal claims that he was wrongfully convicted of the 1994 murder of his wife in Dover. Vermont’s payment settles Grega’s state lawsuit, but there is continued debate over his innocence or guilt

BRATTLEBORO—More than two decades after John Grega’s wife was killed in a Dover condominium — and more than a year after Grega died in a car crash — the state of Vermont will pay $1.55 million to settle claims that he had been wrongfully convicted of murder.

The settlement of Grega’s state lawsuit, and the concurrent dismissal of his federal complaint, mark the end of all legal claims he had made following his release from prison in 2012 after new DNA evidence surfaced.

But even in announcing the settlement April 22, both sides continued to disagree about the most fundamental fact of Christine Grega’s death — whether John Grega was responsible.

“This settlement is in no way an admission of wrongdoing by the state and does not diminish the thorough and professional investigation and prosecution of this matter to a guilty verdict 20 years ago,” Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell said in a prepared statement.

Burlington-based attorney Ian Carleton, representing Grega’s estate, said he was disappointed in the state’s characterization of the deal.

“The bottom line is, the state does not pay $1.5 million to guilty people,” Carleton said. “As a result, this settlement speaks loud and clear about the fact that the DNA exonerated John.”

John and Christine Grega, residents of Lake Grove, N.Y., were vacationing with their 2-year-old son in Dover in late summer 1994. On Sept. 12, Christine Grega was found dead in the condominium’s bathroom; she had been beaten, raped, and strangled.

John Grega said he had been out of the condo with his son at the time of the murder. But in 1995, Grega was convicted of the aggravated murder of his wife and sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The state Supreme Court upheld the conviction in 1998.

Grega remained in prison until August 2012, when a Windham County Superior Court judge vacated the conviction because new evidence testing showed DNA from an unknown male in Christine Grega’s body. Prosecutors subsequently filed an amended murder charge against Grega, then dismissed it in 2013.

That case was dismissed without prejudice, so it could have been refiled. But Grega launched his own legal assault: He sued the state for wrongful conviction under Vermont’s Innocence Protection Act; and he filed a federal lawsuit against investigators alleging civil-rights violations.

He didn’t live to see the resolution of either of those cases. In January 2015, Grega was killed in a one-car crash near his Long Island home.

Grega’s family continued to pursue his lawsuits, both of which have been resolved. Officials announced on April 22 that the Grega estate had “voluntarily dismissed” the federal suit.

Vermont Assistant Attorney General Kate Gallagher said the state had been prepared to defend itself against the federal claims if that suit hadn’t been dropped.

“We were very concerned about the allegations in that case,” she said. “There was certainly nothing that we thought constituted a civil-rights violation. We were not going to settle that case.”

Carleton said the Grega family “stands behind every allegation that was in the [federal] complaint.”

“It was dismissed almost simultaneously with the [state’s] payment of $1.5 million,” Carleton said. “Beyond that, I think people can draw their own conclusions.”

Vermont’s settlement payment resolves the suit Grega had filed in state court. But the attorney general’s office still contends that the complaint’s central allegation — that 2012 DNA testing showed Grega was innocent — is “unsupported by the facts.”

In fact, officials said a 2013 court decision showed that the new evidence “does not exonerate” Grega. Nevertheless, Sorrell said a legal settlement protects the state’s financial interests.

“The state was prepared to go to trial, especially in light of the compelling evidence of guilt presented at the criminal trial in 1995 and the fact that the new test results did not conclusively establish Mr. Grega’s innocence,” Sorrell said. “But the settlement for this relatively modest amount, compared to the state’s arguable exposure to over $20 million in damages under the [law], was deemed to be the most prudent course.”

Carleton had a very different take. After the April 22 settlement agreement was announced, he reiterated his long-standing argument: “As the result of a shoddy and incompetent investigation and subsequent rush to judgment, John was wrongfully convicted for his wife’s murder.”

“While nothing will make up for the suffering that John and his family endured, this settlement speaks loudly and clearly that John is, and always has been, innocent,” Carleton said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #354 (Wednesday, April 27, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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