Very Little Proof

Jack Sagin has spent 33 years in prison for the murder of Paula Durocher in Monterey. His conviction was overturned after DNA evidence showed no trace of him at the crime scene.

Jack Edward Sagin has done 30 years in prison for a murder he swears he didn't commit. After years of appeals, he's not going anywhere. 

Sagin spent decades representing himself and battling his conviction, and boosted his odds when the Northern California Innocence Project agreed to take on his case in 2003. 

NCIP attorneys and investigators have been working Sagin's case for more than a decade, re-examining DNA evidence and interviewing witnesses who testified in the 1986 trial. 

Sagin's latest writ of habeas corpus asked the court for a new evidentiary hearing, to reconsider whether DNA and new testimony provided sufficient cause for a new trial. 

In a decision issued by the court July 15, there will be no new hearing. 

"[Sagin] raises multiple alternative theories of the case, but the various possible explanations do not undermine this court's confidence in the jury's verdict," Monterey County Superior Court Judge Julie Culver wrote in her ruling.

Sagin was convicted for brutally killing 40-year-old Paula Durocher in her Monterey apartment. Prosecutors said it was a botched burglary attempt, and that Sagin, startled to find Durocher at home, used a steak knife to stab her repeatedly, then disposed of the murder weapon into Monterey Bay, tossing it into the water from Cannery Row. 

(For more details on the crime and the basis for Sagin's claim of innocence, see the Weekly's 2014 cover story about the case.)

Prosecutors supplied four key witnesses at trial. Two were jailhouse informants; one was a 13-year-old girl, whose mother Sagin had been crashing with at the time of the murder; and a fourth was Sagin's pal and Durocher's ex-boyfriend Russel Wydler, who testified that he gave him a ride to Durocher's apartment and told him how to get in through the back door.

The Northern California Innocence Project tried to undermine the credibility of the witnesses, particularly the jailhouse informants, but Culver ruled it wasn't new information; the original jurors would have been wary of inmates who were willing to testify in exchange for a deal. 

NCIP also argued that Wydler later recanted his testimony, but Culver refused to accept that argument as credible. Wydler has since passed away. 

The other pivotal issue was DNA. Analysis of various objects at the crime scene, Durocher's home, revealed DNA belonging to five other men, but not Sagin. His lawyers argued the absence of his DNA proved his innocence, but Culver didn't buy it.

"[Sagin] must show that this evidence points unerringly to his innocence, which is does not," she wrote.

She goes on to probe some of the details about what DNA testing—available starting only in 1987, after Sagin was sentenced to life in prison without parole—reveals or doesn't reveal. 

"Significantly, the results showed the DNA of an unidentified person in the fingernail scrapings taken from Durocher's left hand, the hand with which she defended herself in the coroner's opinion," Culver wrote.

"In addition, law enforcement found the DNA of Ronald Jeter (Durocher's friend and co-worker) on the blood-stained towel draped across Durocher's feet. Jeter was the last known person to see Durocher alive, and his story to law enforcement has somewhat changed since the trial."

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In a footnote, Culver dismisses his shifting story—originally, that he came over from a pharmacy, and 25 years later, that he came over after a run, on which he'd been carrying a towel for sweat. 

"Though the additional details are curious, they do not alter the court's ultimate conclusions in this matter," Culver wrote.

This likely isn't the end of Sagin's effort to prove his innocence. "We are firmly convinced that this conviction should be reversed and that we've presented evidence sufficient to require that," Linda Starr, NCIP legal director, says in an emailed statement.

"It isn't sensible to think that Mr. Sagin committed the crime they say he committed and didn't leave a trace of DNA."

A writ of habeas corpus cannot be appealed, but Sagin and his lawyers do have the option to file another, similar petition in a higher court. 

"We will continue litigating Mr. Sagin's case," Starr says. 

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Sara Rubin loves long public meetings, red pens and reading (on newsprint). She has been editor of the Monterey County Weekly since 2016, and has been on staff since 2010.

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