On July 15, 1985, the body of 40-year-old Paula Durocher was found in her apartment in Monterey, CA. When police arrived at the crime scene, there was no sign of forced entry and the television was on. Durocher was clad only in a bathrobe, had been stabbed multiple times, and two blood-stained towels were draped over her legs. The apartment did not appear to be ransacked. Defensive wounds and the disarray around the victim’s body indicated Durocher struggled with her attacker.
In October 1985, two men, Louis Graxiola and Robert Castaneda, both known jailhouse informants, reported to police that 39-year-old Jack Sagin had admitted to the crime while they were being held in the Monterey County Jail.
At the time, Sagin was being held on an unrelated matter and was housed in a cell next to Graxiola. Graxiola said Sagin told him he was burglarizing Durocher’s apartment when she surprised him and they “kind of fought.” After Graxiola was released from custody, Castaneda was moved into the cell next to Sagin. Castaneda said Sagin admitted that Durocher surprised him during a burglary and he stabbed her three times in the heart.
On February 18, 1986, Sagin was charged with Durocher’s murder. At trial, a medical examiner testified that Durocher was stabbed five times with a thin blade similar to a kitchen knife. There was a superficial wound to her head, a wound to the jugular vein in her neck, and three wounds that pierced her heart. Durocher’s thumbs were bruised and there was cut on her knuckle which the examiner opined were defensive wounds.
A number of other witnesses testified at the trial.
Ronald Jeter, a co-worker of Durocher, testified that he visited her at the apartment in the morning on the last day she was seen alive. He said he brought her a silver dollar he had purchased on a company trip to Las Vegas earlier in the week. He said he was there for about a half hour and left.
Robert Causey, another co-worker who also was Durocher’s boyfriend, testified that he had been at the apartment on July 12 and that they had a romantic relationship. He said he called her twice the next day, but there was no answer.
Russel Wydler testified that he had been an on-again off-again boyfriend of Durocher. Wydler was also an acquaintance of Sagin and told the jury that Sagin was in his car once when Wydler went to Durocher’s apartment. He said he “might have” brought up that Durocher often kept her back door open and she kept a key to the front door under a flower pot in front of the apartment.
The prosecution also called Melissa Sorenson, who was the 13-year-old daughter of Lynn Nance, a woman who committed burglaries with Sagin. Sorenson testified that Sagin had moved into her family’s motel room in early July 1985. She said that Sagin came to the room one night mumbling that he “hit her” and that “(s)he’s hurt bad.” Sorenson admitted she had not recalled this until seven months after the murder, while police were interrogating her mother about Sagin’s possible involvement in the crime.
The jailhouse informants, Graxiola and Casteneda, testified that Sagin had admitted to both of them that he killed Durocher when she surprised him while he was burglarizing her apartment. However, Graxiola testified Sagin told him that Wydler was with him during the murder, while Casteneda claimed that Sagin said he committed the crime alone. Graxiola and Castaneda, both of whom had extensive criminal records, admitted they had been police informants in the past and had gotten leniency on pending cases in return for their testimony.
Sagin’s defense lawyer presented testimony from Sagin’s mother, sister, brother-in-law, and a close friend of Sagin’s sister, all of whom testified that Sagin had been at his mother’s house in San Jose, CA the weekend of the murder.
On July 16, 1986, Sagin was convicted of first-degree murder and first-degree burglary. And sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Between 1986 and 2001, Sagin filed multiple appeals and petitions for writ of habeas corpus, but all were denied. Sagin sought to have DNA testing conducted on hairs recovered from the crime scene. However, it was not until 2001 that California enacted legislation granting the right to post-conviction DNA testing.
In 2002, Sagin requested help from NCIP and became one of NCIP’s first clients. In 2009, NCIP filed a motion for post-conviction DNA testing. After a prolonged legal battle in the Monterey County Superior Court, NCIP’s motion for DNA testing was granted.
Between 2009 and 2012, private and government forensic laboratories performed testing on more than a dozen items of evidence, including the scrapings from Durocher’s fingernails, the rape kit, and the bloody towels. DNA was found on the bathrobe, the towels, the vaginal swabs, the hair from the couch cushion found near Durocher’s head, and from the scrapings of Durocher’s fingernails. None of it was Sagin’s DNA.
Instead the testing revealed the DNA of five men, including Jeter, who visited her on the morning of her death, as well as Durocher’s former boyfriend Daniel Baudour, and Robert Causey. The DNA from the fingernail scrapings was from an unidentified male. This unknown profile was submitted to state and federal DNA databases, but the profile was not linked to anyone.
Also in 2011, an investigator for NCIP interviewed Wydler who said his testimony was false—he never told Sagin about a key under a flower pot or that Durocher was going to be gone from her apartment. Wydler, however, refused to sign a sworn affidavit.
In December 2012, NCIP filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the Sixth District Court of Appeal based on the DNA test results and Wydler’s recantation. Subsequently, Sagin’s legal team was joined by lawyers from the law firm of Shearman and Sterling LLP. On May 12, 2014, the appeals court sent the case back to the Superior Court. On June 1, 2014, Wydler died. Thirteen months later, in July 2015, the Superior Court denied the petition without a hearing.
In August 2015, the Sixth District Court of Appeal ordered an evidentiary hearing. Before the hearing was held, the California Legislature passed NCIP co-sponsored SB 1134 which changed the standard governing petitions based on newly discovered evidence. The law provided that a petition could be granted when new evidence “would have more likely than not changed the outcome at trial.” Previously, in order to obtain relief, Sagin had to present newly discovered evidence that would undermine the prosecution’s entire case and “point unerringly to innocence,” a nearly unattainable standard.
On April 5, 2017, Monterey County Superior Court Judge Julie Culver conducted the evidentiary hearing. In May 2017, after the hearing, Judge Culver denied the petition.
On August 30, 2019, the Sixth District Court of Appeal granted the petition. The court held that under the new standard, Sagin was entitled to a new trial and that the newly discovered DNA evidence would have raised a reasonable doubt in the jury’s mind. In its published opinion granting Sagin’s petition, a unanimous three-judge panel stated that DNA 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.”
On October 10, the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office dismissed the charges. The following day, Sagin was released from prison after nearly 34 years in custody. He was met by his sister as well as NCIP staff.