Those who knew Lynn M. DeJac Peters and her struggles with the criminal-justice system mourned her death Wednesday, saying she had suffered more than most and yet survived long enough to see justice and find peace.
DeJac Peters, 50, died peacefully early Wednesday from cancer in her South Buffalo home surrounded by loved ones – far from the state prison where she spent nearly 14 years for a wrongful conviction in the killing of her daughter, Crystallyn M. Girard.
In February 2013, she disclosed that she had terminal cancer and that doctors at Roswell Park Cancer Institute had told her she had a limited amount of time to live.
“At about 1:45 a.m., right in her own home in her own bed, she passed very peacefully. She went to sleep. She was with her boys and husband,” said her husband, Charles W. Peters.
Rather than feel sorry for herself after receiving a medical death sentence, DeJac Peters told loved ones and friends that she was in an enviable situation.
“When she first found out about the cancer, she said she had a win-win situation. She would fight it as long as she could to be with the boys and me. And then, when she passed, she would be with her daughter,” Peters said.
In 1993, DeJac Peters was charged with strangling her daughter, who was 13. The following year, while steadfastly maintaining her innocence, she was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years to life in state prison.
DeJac Peters left two newborn twins and a young son behind to be raised by Peters, the twins’ father, while she was in prison. She was released in 2007 after members of the Buffalo Police Department’s Cold Case Squad uncovered DNA evidence from Crystallyn’s body that was traced to Dennis P. Donohue, who was later convicted of murdering a Buffalo woman.
Donohue was sentenced to 25 years to life for the murder of Buffalo resident Joan Giambra, murdered nine months after Crystallyn was killed. He was also a person of interest in the murder of a third woman, Carol Reed, in 1975. He was never charged in Crystallyn’s death, but the DNA evidence exonerated DeJac Peters.
She was eventually granted $2.7 million by the state for her wrongful conviction and imprisonment. The Erie County District Attorney’s Office, in re-examining the case, accepted an outside medical examiner’s controversial findings that Crystallyn died from an accidental cocaine overdose, rather than strangulation.
“Lynn stands as a tragic reminder that there are innocent people behind bars whose lives are wasting away while the true perpetrators remain at large,” said attorney Steven M. Cohen, who represented her in the civil suit against the state.
“May she rest in peace,” said District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III, who was a prosecutor and chief of the DA’s Homicide Bureau when Cold Case Squad detectives approached him with proof indicating that DeJac Peters did not kill her daughter and implicating Donohue.
Sedita and the detectives – Charles J. Aronica, Mary E. Gugliuzza, both now retired, and Lissa M. Redmond – met with Dr. John P. Simich from the Erie County Forensic Crime Laboratory and requested tests to compare DNA samples from Crystallyn’s bedroom crime scene with Donohue’s DNA profile. His DNA matched the crime scene samples, and DeJac Peters was on her way to freedom.
Cohen praised Sedita for his recommendation to then-DA Frank J. Clark III that there was insufficient evidence to sustain the second-degree murder conviction. Clark accepted the recommendation.
Former Cold Case Detective Dennis A. Delano, now a Cheektowaga town justice, was also credited by Cohen for freeing DeJac Peters.
“Dennis Delano lost his job because of his advocacy of Lynn. He’s the one who took the DNA and caused it to be tested, revealing that Dennis Donohue’s DNA was on the wall and also inside Crystallyn,” Cohen said in offering a contrasting perspective on how DeJac Peters was exonerated.
Delano retired after he was brought up on disciplinary charges by the Police Department for releasing evidence in the case. Delano could not be reached to comment Wednesday.
But all of that is now history as Peters and the twins, 20-year-old Keith and Douglas, prepare to say a final goodbye.
In recent days, DeJac Peters had grown weaker, according to her husband, but she and the family held on to the hope that she would somehow live, though she sensed the end was nearing.
The widower said she also hung on to her sense of humor, even after the cancer had ravaged her, reducing her weight from 160 pounds to 80.
“She used to joke about having plastic surgery to lose weight, but would say, ‘I don’t have to do that now. I lost it all,’ ” said Peters, who stuck by her throughout her years behind bars.
He said his wife’s dream was to take some of the money she received in the settlement and invest it in real estate. She lived long enough to see part of that realized.
“We bought a couple of houses right next to each other and are living in the one, but we’re making the two houses into one big house. We’re buying all the supplies in Buffalo,” Peters said. “Before she died, she said to me, ‘Two things I want you to do: I want you to finish the house and finish the house.’ ”
In reflecting on the very public struggles his wife went through, the 60-year-old Peters said the cancer was far worse than the incarceration.
“Lynn was first diagnosed with lung cancer, a tumor on one lung, and then it spread across her spine to the other lung with several tumors. In January, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and we had that taken care of,” Peters said.
“She was in a great deal of pain the last year and a half, but we weren’t expecting her to die. We were hoping because you never give up.”
DeJac Peters is also survived by an older son, Edward, from whom she was estranged.
There will be a wake from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and from 2 to 4 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday in Loomis Offers & Loomis Funeral Home, 1820 Seneca St., where funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. next Thursday.
Peters says his wife is worthy of tribute and offered these parting words:
“I was lucky enough to have her let me into her life.”