Jamie Lee Peterson
The October 1996 rape and murder of 68-year-old Geraldine Montgomery in her own home shocked the small, northwest Michigan town of Kalkaska. Ms. Montgomery, who lived alone and was a pillar of the community, was found asphyxiated in the trunk of her own car with the engine running and the garage closed. Despite being found fully clothed, the police immediately concluded that she was a victim of sexual assault given that a rape kit showed male semen on the vaginal swab. Further, on her shirt was a stain of her own saliva mixed with male semen.
The crime was unsolved for four months when, on February 18, 1997, Jamie Lee Peterson confessed in detail during a mostly audio-recorded confession. Peterson, who has brain damage and mental illness, confessed to committing the crime by himself. Six days later, he called the police back and tried to recant his confession. The interrogating officers didn’t believe his recantation, but ultimately told Mr. Peterson: “I don’t have any influence on the DNA, I believe it’s going to come back to you. If it’s not, then you don’t have a thing to worry about.”
Shortly thereafter, the rudimentary DNA testing available at the time was conducted on the vaginal swab. That testing excluded Mr. Peterson as the source of the male DNA. However, given the limitations of the DNA testing, the State's DNA expert was unable to develop a DNA profile from the semen portion of the shirt stain.
After the testing, the police re-interrogated Mr. Peterson. They falsely told him that while the DNA testing proved it was him, it also proved he had an accomplice. Over the next few weeks Mr. Peterson confessed several more times to police. During each of these confessions, he named several accomplices, but further DNA testing and police investigation cleared all those he named.
The audiotapes of the interrogation revealed that Peterson failed to get basic, uncontroversial facts about the crime scene correct. For example, Peterson continually got wrong the clothes the victim was wearing (she was wearing pink pants and a white shirt, but Peterson first said she was wearing a dress and then a blouse), or where the sexual assault occurred (Peterson said it was in the bedroom where all the evidence showed it was in the living room). Mr. Peterson also could not correctly describe a candle found in a tree across the street that the police believed was stolen from Ms. Montgomery’s home during the assault. Only after being provided the correct information by police would Peterson include the correct information within his confessions.
Despite the problems with the confession and the DNA, the State’s prosecution went forward. Mr. Peterson was prosecuted him under the infamous "unindicted co-ejaculator theory." It argued to the jury that Peterson likely was responsible for the untestable male DNA on the victim’s shirt, and his unknown accomplice was responsible for the male DNA in the vaginal swab. Despite the efforts of a relentless local appointed attorney named Robert Carey, Peterson was convicted.
Over the next decade and a half, all of Peterson’s appeals failed. Again, this was no fault of his appointed appellate attorney, Al Millstein, who joined Attorney Carey in this uphill fight during the direct and collateral appeal process. As the DNA technology improved, through Attorney Millstein, Mr. Peterson moved for DNA testing of the shirt stain. He also requested that the DNA profile of the unidentified male placed into a national DNA database of known criminal offenders. The prosecution and then the courts, however, blocked these requests and refused to test the DNA. This was perhaps the oddest fact about the case – the State publicly theorized that there was an unknown accomplice who was responsible for the semen on the vaginal swab, but they refused to use the new technology to try and identify this person.
In early 2013, Attorney Millstein sought the assistance of David Moran, the Director of the Michigan Innocence Clinic (MIC). At the time, the MIC did not handle DNA cases. Moran contacted Steve Drizin and Joshua Tepfer from the CWC, and we agreed to co-counsel.
In May 2013, the MIC and CWC attorneys persuaded a new regime at the Kalkaska County prosecutor’s office and the Michigan State police to conduct further DNA testing. This DNA testing resulted in identifying the source of the male DNA in the vaginal swab as Jason Ryan. Further, testing on the shirt stain now showed that the male profile also matched Jason Ryan. Mr. Ryan was arrested in late 2013. An extensive re-investigation by the Michigan State police established no credible evidence to indicate that Ryan and Peterson had any association. At the time of this writing, Ryan has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
Despite this new evidence and the Ryan arrest, the prosecutors continued to object to any relief for Mr. Peterson. On August 14, 2014 -- after extensive briefing and oral argument – the Honorable Janet Allen vacated Mr. Peterson’s convictions and ordered a new trial. Attorneys for Peterson later discovered that in the weeks following Judge Allen’s ruling, the Michigan State police officers re-investigating the matter learned for the first time that the candle in the tree across the street actually was not stolen from Ms. Montgomery’s home. In actuality, a 13-year-old neighbor broke her mother’s candlestick a week before the murder and threw the candle in the tree to hide the incident from her mother. The candle, in fact, had nothing to do with the assault on Ms. Montgomery. Mr. Peterson’s inclusion of the candle within his confession demonstrated that his confession merely adopted the theories the interrogating officers presented to him. This fact apparently was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and on on September 5, 2014, the State dropped all charges against Mr. Peterson.