On Friday, Oct. 11, Jack Sagin walked out into the world freely for the first time in 33 years.
In October of 1986, a jury found Sagin guilty of a 1985 murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He has appealed his conviction ever since, and his case took a new tack after the Northern California Innocence Project began representing him in 2001. Since then, some 50 attorneys, ranging from current students to current judges, have worked on his case.
The NCIP's first legal battle on Sagin's behalf was getting a judge to authorize DNA testing on decades-old evidence. That DNA testing—a technology that wasn't available when Sagin went to trial in Monterey County Superior Court —revealed DNA that belonged to an unknown man, as well as four other men. Sagin's DNA was not detected on the crime scene evidence, including under the victim's fingernails and on a blood-stained towel.
Paula Durocher, 40, was violently murdered in her Monterey apartment on July 15, 1985, after an intruder stabbed her, puncturing her heart. Durocher's daughter found her mother's body after a coworker called to ask why she hadn't shown up at work.
The NCIP has pressed Sagin's case for years on the basis that his conviction was based overwhelmingly on testimony from two jailhouse informants, and no physical evidence linking him to the crime scene was ever uncovered. In 2017, they made the case for a new trial to Monterey County Superior Court Judge Julie Culver, who disagreed.
"While the new DNA evidence is interesting, it does not rise to the standard required in this matter," Culver wrote in her decision.
"[Sagin] has failed to demonstrate that the results of the new DNA testing, including the absence of his personal DNA, if admitted into evidence, would probably have resulted in a different outcome at his trial."
Sagin's attorneys appealed Culver's ruling, and in September, the Sixth District Court of Appeal sided with him, overturning his conviction.
But it still wasn't a done deal; the Monterey County District Attorney could have pursued a new trial against Sagin, with the new information provided by DNA testing available to used in his defense. District Attorney Jeanine Pacioni chose not to retry the case, and instead sought a swift release for Sagin, expediting the official sign-offs required.
In a statement, Pacioni explained her reasoning to not retry the case. "First, the murder took place over 34 years ago. Memories of witnesses typically fade after events, especially from events occurring decades ago," she wrote.
"Second, there were four main prosecution witnesses linking Sagin to the murder and burglary. Two of those witnesses are now deceased. Third, much of the inculpatory evidence was testimony from police informants with felony convictions (one deceased, the other now serving a prison term in Arizona).
"Finally, as the Court of Appeal held, the unknown male DNA underneath the victim’s fingernails raises a reasonable doubt concerning the identity of the perpetrator."
Kelley Fleming, a Northern California Innocence Project staff attorney who worked on Sagin's case, is careful to note that the unknown DNA sample means justice still hasn't been fully delivered in this case—and that the court ruling overturning the 1986 conviction falls short of actively proving Sagin's innocence.
"Justice for whom?" she says. "Justice for Jack Sagin—it's on the right path. He still has not been recognized as innocent. That part of it is bittersweet.
"The other piece of this is justice for Paula Durocher. She was murdered in her home. She valiantly fought her attacker—we know that because of the DNA underneath her fingernails. Somebody out there did this crime, and should be held responsible. Until that happens, she does not have justice."
Sagin was released from prison in San Diego on Friday, and some of his favorite meals—eggs sunnyside-up for breakfast, spaghetti and meatballs for dinner—have followed in the days since. He relocated to the Phoenix area where he is living with his sister and brother-in-law, and where yesterday, he went to Costco for the first time.
"He's doing really well," Fleming says. "He's just trying to figure out the world as it is now; it's very different than 1986, when he was convicted."
His 74th birthday is tomorrow, Oct. 15.