New DNA testing has prompted a judge to toss out a life sentence for the man convicted in the brutal 1996 murder of an elderly woman that shook a tiny northern Michigan town.
A Circuit Court judge this week ordered a new trial for 39-year-old Jamie Lee Peterson, whose case was profiled by NBC News in December. The order was based largely on new DNA testing that implicated another man in the crime.
Prosecutors must now decide whether to retry Peterson, who remains in prison, for the brutal October 1996 rape and slaying of Geraldine Montgomery, a 68-year-old former schoolteacher, in Kalkaska, Michigan, a town of about 2,200 residents in the northern reaches of the state.
Lawyers and law students from the University of Michigan's Innocence Clinic and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University were instrumental in persuading the state to retest DNA evidence using technology unavailable at the time. The new results excluded Peterson, bolstering the argument his supporters and attorneys have made for years -- that he has been imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.
"It's truly thrilling," said A.J. Dixon, a lawyer who first joined the legal team as a law student with the Michigan Innocence Clinic. "This opinion is certainly a step in the right direction of correcting something that we believe went wrong 17 years ago."
Peterson was convicted in 1998 of beating and raping Montgomery in her home, then locking her in the trunk of her running Buick and leaving her to asphyxiate.
Investigators conducted scores of interviews at the time, but had few leads until a tip from a jailhouse informant led them to Peterson, then 22, who was incarcerated on a sex charge and had a history of mental illness. After a series of interrogations, Peterson confessed. He soon recanted, but was nevertheless tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
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The prosecution's case rested largely on Peterson's confession. Police said he described details of the crime only someone who committed it could know.
Those who believe him innocent argue he learned them through the interrogation, and that his youth and history of mental illness contributed to what they say was a false statement of guilt.
In dismissing Peterson's conviction, Michigan Circuit Court Judge Janet M. Allen referred to recent research indicating that false confessions play a role in approximately one-quarter of wrongful convictions.
"False confessions, especially by those who are cognitively impaired, are very real," Allen wrote in her opinion, which was dated last Thursday and released Monday.
Initial DNA tests of semen and saliva collected at the murder scene were mixed, with one excluding Peterson and the other proving inconclusive. At trial, prosecutors argued that the inconclusive sample could have been Peterson's, bolstering their theory that there were multiple perpetrators.
In 2013, a new county prosecutor agreed to retest the DNA using more sophisticated technology. The new tests excluded Peterson as a suspect. Results were then run through a national database and hit a match: Jason Anthony Ryan, who investigators had interviewed during the original investigation. He also submitted a DNA sample at the time, which was apparently never tested.
In December, Michigan police arrested Ryan for the murder. He will be tried later this year.
In her opinion vacating Peterson's conviction and granting him a new trial, Judge Allen noted that his "confession will undoubtedly be viewed in a different light at retrial given the spreading awareness of false confessions by the cognitively impaired and the new DNA results." She added that "new DNA results tend to support the view that Ryan was the sole perpetrator of these crimes."
The Kalkaska County prosecutor's office has argued Ryan and Peterson could have been together when they committed the crime, though police have not been able to establish any connection between the two men. Kalkaska prosecutor Mike Perrault could not be reached for comment by NBC News on whether he would retry Peterson.
Peterson's pro-bono attorneys said they hope that prosecutors will drop the case and that their client will be freed.
"Our hope has always been that Jamie gets to go home and get to see his family and one day is able to put this 17-year nightmare behind him," said Dixon.