California’s Sixth District Court of Appeal overturned the murder conviction of Jack Sagin, a man who has spent 33 years in prison, after it was determined that the DNA tested from the crime scene, including male DNA found under the victim’s fingernails, was not that of Jack Sagin. Sagin was released today.
Sagin was represented by Shearman & Sterling in partnership with the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP). The Shearman & Sterling team devoted over 4,000 hours over the course of a decade to vacating his conviction.
Shearman & Sterling first joined the case team in 2009, when NCIP had obtained a court order granting Jack the right to conduct post-conviction DNA testing. The results showed that despite the victim’s murder by multiple stab wounds during a violent struggle, none of the DNA found at the grisly crime scene matched Sagin’s, including DNA found under the victim’s fingernails. In 2012, Shearman & Sterling and NCIP filed a habeas petition in the Monterey Superior Court based on the newly discovered DNA evidence. The trial court denied the petition in 2014, and a second petition was filed with the Court of Appeal, which issued an order to show cause in the trial court why Sagin was not entitled to relief. The trial court denied the petition again, and another petition was filed in the Court of Appeal, which again issued an order to show cause and, this time, required that the trial court hold an evidentiary hearing before ruling.
In 2016, California lowered the standard governing petitions for a writ of habeas corpus based on newly discovered evidence. The new standard requires a petitioner to show that, had the jury heard the newly discovered evidence, it is more likely than not that there would have been a different outcome at trial (whereas the prior standard required a showing of actual innocence). After an evidentiary hearing in Salinas in 2017, and despite this new standard, the trial court again denied Sagin’s habeas petition. Once again, we filed another petition with the Court of Appeal.
Finally, after more than a decade of work and several habeas petitions, the Court of Appeal vacated the trial court’s judgment. The court’s decision focused heavily on the DNA from an unknown male that was found underneath the victim’s fingernails, as well as the gruesome crime scene and evidence of a physical struggle. The court determined that, had the jury been presented with this evidence in 1986, it more likely than not would have failed to convict Sagin in light of the relatively weak evidence of his guilt, as at least one juror would have maintained a reasonable doubt regarding his guilt.