A Long Island man who served 18 years in a Vermont prison for a murder he says he didn't commit was released on bail Wednesday -- a day after new DNA evidence led a judge to throw out his conviction and order a new trial.
John Grega, 50, formerly of Lake Grove, walked out of Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield, Vt., around 5 p.m. -- his first taste of freedom since a jury convicted him of raping and strangling his wife, Christine Grega, on Sept., 12, 1994. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
In the facility's parking lot, Grega shared an emotional embrace with his mother, Marion Grega, 72, of Lake Ronkonkoma, siblings Jeff Grega of Holtsville, Anthony Grega of Ronkonkoma, and Chrissy DiGiacinto of Commack, all of whom drove from Long Island to greet him.
"I can't believe it," Grega told them, tears in his eyes. "I can't believe it. I'm in shock. I'm like in total shock."
Marion Grega sobbed while hugging her oldest child -- then promised to cook him his favorite dishes of chicken paprikash, lasagna and stuffed cabbage."You look great," she said "A little skinny. I'll fatten you up."
"We always believed in you," Jeff Grega told his brother.
The family piled into an SUV and started their drive back to Lake Ronkonkoma, where Grega will live with his mother until his new trial begins.
"I feel good," said a beaming Grega, wearing the same black Levi's jeans, white adidas sneakers and gray polo shirt he brought to the prison in 1995."I can't wait to see the night sky."
After years of rejected appeals and failed legal battles by Grega's lawyers, DNA tests conducted in May by Vermont's state crime lab cast doubt upon Grega's conviction. The sample taken from inside Christine Grega's body showed it was from an unknown man -- not Grega. The analysis also ruled out several people who might have contaminated the sample.
Vermont Superior Court Judge John Wesley vacated Grega's conviction on Tuesday after prosecutors -- who originally battled to uphold the verdict -- finally relented and agreed to a new trial. A trial date has not been set.
In the meantime, Wesley ruled, Grega must live with his mother in Lake Ronkonkoma and check in each day with a local police department. He must also stay away from Christine Grega's family unless they contact him.
Grega was convicted less than a year after his wife was found dead in a bathroom at the West Dover, Vt., condominium where the couple was vacationing with their 2-year-old son in 1994.
He has always said he was at a playground with his son at the time of his wife's murder, although he initially attributed some of her injuries to rough sex they had earlier in the day, court records show. He told authorities he found his wife unconscious in the bathtub and tried to resuscitate her.
Grega is the first Vermont inmate to have a conviction vacated based on DNA evidence under a 2008 state law, which allows people convicted of serious violent crimes to seek DNA testing.
Shortly before his release after posting $75,000 bail, Grega's fellow inmates cheered the former NASA employee, who served as the prison law librarian. He helped numerous prisoners with their cases, in addition to working on his own, his lawyers said.
"Johnny just wants to put his feet in the ocean again," Marion Grega said before her family headed home.
With Matthew Cox
Presented in John Grega's trial
Bloody clothes belonging to John and Christine Grega were found soaking in the condominium's washing machine.
Prosecutors said the crime scene was too clean, and must have been scrubbed by Grega before he put the clothes in the washing machine.
There was no corroboration of Grega's alibi. He claimed he was at a playground with his son when the murder happened.
Grega made inconsistent statements about his wife's injuries to investigators, initially attributing some of them to rough sex the couple had earlier in the day.
Supporting Grega's innocence
No eyewitness testimony linked Grega to the crime.
No physical evidence directly linked Grega to the crime.
Recent DNA analysis shows another man's skin cells were found inside Christine Grega.
Source: Vermont court records