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John Grega pleads not guilty in wife's death

Attorney Ian Carleton walks out of court in

Attorney Ian Carleton walks out of court in Brattelboro, Vt. with John Grega, who appeared in Vermont State Court for a hearing for the first time since a judge tossed his murder conviction and ordered a new trial. He was convicted of killing and raping his wife in 1995. (Sept. 18, 2012) Credit: Len Emery

BRATTLEBORO, Vt. -- A Lake Ronkonkoma man accused of killing his wife vowed Thursday to prove his innocence at a second trial -- and said he'll reject any plea deals.

Shortly before his arraignment in a Vermont courtroom, John Grega, 50, said he will accept no plea bargains from prosecutions that require him to admit any wrongdoing.

Grega pleaded not guilty to aggravated murder. The former NASA contract engineer is accused of strangling his wife, Christine Veal Grega, 31, while on vacation in Vermont in 1994.

"He wants to prove his innocence," said Ian Carleton, lead attorney on Grega's legal team, which includes lawyers from the New England Innocence Project.

Originally sentenced to life without parole, Grega had served 18 years when District Court Judge John Wesley threw out the conviction in August, citing new DNA evidence -- skin cells belonging to an unknown man -- found inside the victim.

Windham County State's Attorney Tracy Shriver Thursday requested nine months to prepare for the retrial -- in part because a DNA analyst at the Vermont Forensics Laboratory has died, leading to staffing shortages at the facility.

"It has put the lab in a bind," Shriver told Wesley.

The lab is in possession of the DNA evidence that led Wesley to overturn Grega's conviction, but the sample is incompatible with those in the FBI's Combined DNA Index System.

Because of that, Shriver said she plans to test about 16 additional pieces of evidence -- from stains at the crime scene to pieces of clothing -- to see whether they contain DNA that can be uploaded to the FBI system for comparison.

"We want to be able to determine who this person is," Shriver said, referring to the unidentified man linked to the victim.

Shriver and defense attorneys have agreed that any additional testing should be done by an independent facility, such as another state's crime lab.

Carleton, arguing that a nine-month delay would be unfair to his client under speedy trial rules, urged the judge to limit prosecutors to two months' preparation time. "This has taken long enough," he said.

Wesley, who didn't immediately rule, said he would soon issue a pretrial schedule, detailing when forensic testing must be completed.

Shriver has yet to respond to a defense motion seeking to dismiss the murder charge based on insufficient evidence presented by prosecutors in charging papers.

Wesley Thursday amended Grega's terms of release, allowing him to check in with authorities from his mother's Lake Ronkonkoma home once a week instead of every day.

"Mr. Grega has a strong incentive to return to court to pursue what he believes is an innocent verdict," the judge said.

Grega has been spending much of his time caring for his mother, who is ill, Carleton said.

Grega has always maintained that he was at a playground with his 2-year-old son at the time of his wife's murder. She was found strangled, beaten and sexually assaulted on Sept. 12, 1994, in a bathroom at the West Dover condo where the family was vacationing, authorities said.

Prosecutors at the original trial relied exclusively on circumstantial evidence and Grega's own statements to police that included conflicting accounts and admissions that some of his wife's injuries were caused by rough sex they had before her death.

Prosecutors argue the new DNA evidence does not prove Grega's innocence. They have theorized that the skin cells were transferred to Christine Grega's body when her husband used an object to sexually assault her. That object has never been found.

Attorneys on both sides are scrambling to track down witnesses involved in the first trial, including Long Island residents.

The list of potential witnesses contained more than 340 names but has since been culled to 137, Carleton said.

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