The testimony of a pair of jailhouse informants put a man in prison 33 years ago for the murder of a Monterey woman.
Last week, DNA evidence tested years after the man was sentenced led an appellate court to overturn that conviction.
The Sixth District Court of Appeal overturned the conviction of Jack Sagin in the 1985 murder of Paula Durocher after Sagin's legal team with The Northern California Innocence Project demonstrated that DNA evidence found under Durocher's nails was that of an unidentified male, while Sagin's DNA was found nowhere at the crime scene.
Now the clock is ticking for Sagin, who turns 74 in October. If the state Attorney General's office opts not to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, the appellate court will issue what's called a remittitur—Latin for "it is sent back"—on Oct. 29, triggering Sagin's right to have a new trial in Monterey County Superior Court within 60 days.
If the Monterey County District Attorney opts to not retry the case, Sagin will walk free.
Chief Assistant District Attorney Berkley Brannon says he can't answer the retrial question right now because no decision has been made, but he acknowledges the case would be difficult to retry. One of the two jailhouse informants who testified in the original case is dead, as is a witness who claimed to have driven Sagin to Durocher's house on one occasion.
"We've kept the victim's family updated but we also need to meet with them, which we have scheduled next week," Brannon says. He said the DA's office has cooperated with the Northern California Innocence Project in this case, retesting all the DNA at their behest.
"In order to get a new trial based on new evidence, you have to show it unerringly points to innocence," Brannon says. "The Court of Appeal says this case doesn't meet that standard."
It does, however, meet standards enacted by the legislature in 2016, which say that if the new evidence was introduced at trial, there could have been a different outcome, Brannon says. It's a different standard, but one that has the same legal outcome.
"It's a close case, because you had an awful lot of DNA in that apartment and we were able to match every sample we found to someone the victim knew, except for the sample under her fingernails," Brannon says. "We ran it through CODIS and it didn't match anyone." (CODIS is the acronym for Combined DNA Index System and is the FBI's DNA database.)
Sagin lost his case in Monterey County Superior Court in 2017 seeking a new trial on the basis of the DNA evidence, which his attorneys appealed.
As the Weekly outlined in 2014, Durocher's daughter, Anita Campo, found her mother's body on July 15, 1985 after one of Durocher's co-workers at the Madden Company, which sold copiers and office equipment around Monterey, called her to say her mother hadn't come to work that morning. Campo let herself in through the back door of her mother's apartment and found her dead—Durocher had been stabbed three times in the chest and the weapon penetrated her heart.
Brannon described Sagin as a "serial burglar," first arrested for burglary at the age of 14. In the month after Durocher’s murder, Sagin allegedly went on a burglary spree, breaking into a house in New Monterey, four houses in Carmel Valley, and a paint shop in Sand City.
He stole VCRs, microwaves, stereos, TVs and an air compressor.
Seaside police arrested Sagin on Aug. 8, 1985 at the corner of Fremont and Canyon Del Rey. As officers moved in, Sagin pulled a knife. The crime report lists his demeanor as “violent,” and he was charged with assaulting an officer with a deadly weapon.
He reportedly told the cops he’d rather be shot than go back to prison. He’d already done prison time for five other crimes, including voluntary manslaughter.
He landed in Monterey County Jail, which triggered a turning point in Durocher’s murder case: Two fellow inmates turned Sagin in to the cops for murder.
One of them, Louis Graxiola, met Sagin at a club in Monterey in the ’70s. Graxiola landed in the same jail unit after he was arrested Sept. 30 for shoplifting cigarettes from Safeway in Marina.
Three days later, Graxiola was in the courthouse hallway, and flagged down a district attorney investigator he recognized. He had to tell him about this crazy story he’s heard in the jail, he said about a woman stabbed three times in the heart in Monterey. Graxiola has since died.
Robert Castaneda, arrested in October on grand theft charges, was put in the cell next to Sagin’s. They knew each other from time spent in San Quentin State Prison.
Castaneda asked jailers to get him facetime with Monterey cops, and he relayed a story he said Sagin told him about a grisly murder. Sagin said he’d disposed of the shoes he wore at the crime scene to avoid matching footprints, Castaneda claimed, and tossed the bloody knife into the bay.
The Northern California Innocence Project took up Sagin's case in 2002 after he filled out a questionnaire, and after he had filed numerous unsuccessful appeals and writs on his own. After a protracted legal battle, Monterey County Superior Court granted the project's motion for the post-conviction DNA testing.
The DNA testing, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, showed Sagin's DNA was absent from every single piece of tested crime scene evidence. The DNA of an unknown man was found under the victim's fingernails and DNA from four other men was discovered on other items of evidence, including a bloodstained towel.
"We hope they will not [retry him]," says Melissa O'Connell, a staff attorney with The Northern California Innocence Project. "We know much more about jailhouse informant testimony now than we did in 1986, and we know it's unreliable. This is not a good case, and it's a case in which (the District Attorney) can do the right thing."
As for Sagin: "He's lost 34 years of his life, so to say he was elated would be an understatement," O'Connell says. "I don't know that I can articulate the emotion he's experiencing right now, but he's still in custody and we have to continue that fight."
In its published opinion granting Sagin's petition for writ of habeas corpus, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Sixth District Court of Appeal stated that DNA evidence collected from underneath the victim's fingernails, “is powerful evidence the victim was killed by someone other than Jack Sagin," and that “would have caused the jury to view more favorably the testimony of the witnesses who swore Sagin was nowhere near the crime scene.”
Sagin is The Northern California Innocence Project's longest-represented client; they first took on his case in 2002. In addition to project attorneys, he was represented by attorneys of the firm Shearman & Sterling.