Arrest of New Suspect in 1996 Homicide Could Prove Jamie Lee Peterson Innocent
DNA results now point to a single suspect with no connection to the man convicted
CHICAGO -- DNA testing championed by innocence projects from Northwestern University School of Law and the University of Michigan Law School has led to Monday’s (Dec. 2) arrest of Davison, Mich., resident Jason Anthony Ryan and could prove that Jamie Lee Peterson is innocent of the 1996 sexual assault and murder of Geraldine Montgomery. Peterson has been incarcerated for this offense since February 1997.
The Michigan Innocence Clinic and Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions plan to file legal motions in Kalkaska County (Mich.) Court asking for Peterson’s release and a new trial before Christmas.
Montgomery, the 68-year-old resident of Kalkaska, Mich., was found raped and murdered in October 1996. Semen from the perpetrator was found both inside the victim and mixed with her saliva on her shirt. Four months later, during a series of inconsistent and inaccurate statements to police, Peterson confessed to the rape and murder.
However, after DNA testing conducted on the rape kit conclusively excluded Peterson as the donor, the police decided that there must have been two perpetrators. Since the primitive DNA technology at the time was unable to identify the source of the shirt stain, Peterson was convicted on the theory that he committed the crime with an unknown co-conspirator and that Peterson was likely responsible for the stain on the shirt.
This past spring, Peterson’s former attorney, Al Millstein, asked Michigan Innocence Clinic Co-Director David Moran to re-examine this case. Millstein and Attorney Robert Carey of Kalkaska had long sought advanced DNA testing using new technology on behalf of Peterson. Despite claims that there was an unknown perpetrator at large, the previous Kalkaska County prosecutor rebuffed these efforts.
“Upon learning of the case, we were shocked to discover that the previous prosecutor had successfully fought against further DNA testing even though it was indisputable that someone other than Mr. Peterson had raped the victim,” said Moran. “We solicited the assistance of the Center on Wrongful Convictions and met with the new prosecutor in Kalkaska, who consulted the Michigan State Police. We were very pleased when the new prosecutor immediately agreed with us that further DNA testing was of utmost importance.”
The new DNA testing conducted this summer and fall has identified convicted felon Jason Anthony Ryan as the source of both the semen in the rape kit as well as the semen mixed with the victim’s saliva on her shirt. The testing on all of the physical evidence at the scene excludes Peterson. Attorneys for Peterson have learned that when recently interviewed by the Michigan State Police, Ryan reportedly lied and claimed he did not know Montgomery.
Ryan has never been connected in any way with Peterson. Ryan, however, has been connected to a now-deceased man who was the first prime suspect in the Montgomery murder. That man, who had a lengthy criminal history including sexual offenses, was an initial suspect because he purportedly told a confidential informant the day after the murder, before any details of the murder had been made public, that he had “killed the lady and stuffed her in the trunk” the night before. Ryan was staying at the home of that other man, just two blocks from Montgomery’s home, at the time of the murder. When Ryan was interviewed in 1997 as part of the original investigation, the police took a saliva sample from him but apparently never tested it.
“This new evidence proves that Jamie Peterson is absolutely innocent, he was never in that house, committed no crimes, and has no idea who did,” said Caitlin Plummer, one of Peterson’s new attorneys. Attorneys for Peterson note that now that DNA testing has shown that the semen in the rape kit matches that on the shirt, all of the physical evidence now conclusively points to just a single perpetrator, Jason Ryan.
The Michigan Innocence Clinic and Center on Wrongful Convictions are law school programs where students represent actual clients.
University of Michigan third-year law student A.J. Dixon, who has led the student team in this case, said: “I have spent literally hundreds of hours researching every inch of this case. There is absolutely no reliable evidence that there are multiple perpetrators involved. And there is zero evidence that Mr. Peterson and Mr. Ryan had ever even met each other before the crime, let alone that they were friends or co-conspirators. It takes an incredible amount of mental gymnastics to conclude anything but the arrest of Ryan proves Peterson is innocent.”
Both the Michigan Innocence Clinic and the Center on Wrongful Convictions have been involved in other high-profile cases where individuals were exonerated despite confessions.
One of Peterson’s attorneys, Joshua Tepfer, was counsel in Chicago cases known as the Dixmoor Five and Englewood Four, which gained national prominence when they were featured on CBS’s “60 Minutes” last year. Those cases involved eight confessions proven false when DNA identified different perpetrators.
“The State clings to the theory that Peterson confessed to details that only the perpetrator could know,” Tepfer said. “However, the same seemingly held true in the Dixmoor and Englewood cases. The same holds true in almost every false confession case. We look forward to showing how and why false confessions occur with alarming frequency.”