Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 7, 2013

In old ruling, judge ruled DNA not essential

BY MICHELLE MERLIN
mmerlin@record-eagle.com

— TRAVERSE CITY — Accusations that Jason Anthony Ryan raped and killed Kalkaska resident Geraldine Montgomery in 1996 came about because a group that works to exonerate convicted criminals through DNA evidence took an interest in the case.

The Innocence Projects at the University of Michigan Law School and Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago are gearing up to push for a retrial for Jamie Lee Peterson, 39, a man with mental impairments who was convicted of Montgomery’s slaying in 1998, and who remains behind bars.

The two samples of DNA found at the scene of the crime matched Ryan, who this week was arrested and charged in the Montgomery sexual assault and murder. He’s jailed on a $2 million bond.

At the time of Peterson’s conviction, jurors knew some evidence discovered at the crime scene did not belong to Peterson. A second sample, found on Montgomery’s shirt, was too contaminated to test with 1990s technology.

Peterson’s new defense team contends the shirt stain identification means that there’s no evidence Peterson was at the crime scene. They plan to file a retrial motion before Christmas.

“The prosecutor insinuated strongly at trial that the second DNA sample probably came from our client, which recent technology has been able to prove is not true,” said Caitlin Plummer, one of Peterson’s new attorneys.

In 2002, Peterson’s defense attorneys filed a motion to retest the DNA found on Montgomery’s shirt under a new law that allowed people to petition for DNA testing to exonerate convicted criminals.

The law required the defense to prove that the DNA evidence is material to the conviction and that DNA evidence is still available for testing, had not been previously tested with the most modern technology, and the identity of the defendant as the perpetrator was at issue at the time of his or her trial.

But a then-circuit court judge ruled DNA evidence was not the most important piece of Peterson’s conviction. The judge, Alton Davis, who later briefly served on the Michigan Supreme Court, held that he would not retest the DNA because it was immaterial to the case, and because no new technology was available at the time.

“Inspection of the record reveals that evidence introduced at the trial against Peterson, excluding DNA evidence, was compelling,” Davis wrote.

Peterson offered police a number of different confessions, but prosecutors said Peterson’s knowledge of certain aspects of the crime put him at the scene.

The current Kalkaska County prosecuting attorney, Mike Perreault, said he thought retesting the DNA was important to find the second perpetrator, but those results have no bearing on Peterson’s conviction.

“When it was brought to trial, it was brought to the jury that the DNA evidence does not match,” said Perreault.

Peterson’s lawyers maintain the identification of the shirt stain DNA would have affected jurors and their decision to convict Peterson.

“They would have seen (Peterson’s) confessions in an entirely different light than they did back then,” Plummer said.