sandiegouniontribune.com

May 16, 2022 

Greg Moran   

The San Diego District Attorney’s Office on Monday abruptly dropped murder charges on the eve of a second trial of Jane Dorotik, two decades after a Vista jury had convicted her of killing her husband, Robert, near their Valley Center home.

The stunning announcement came at the very last minute, just after a jury had been summoned last week; selection of a final panel was set for Monday. Some 75 jurors were waiting outside the courtroom to begin the process of selection as Superior Court Judge Robert Kearney granted a motion by prosecutors to dismiss the case.

Dorotik, who has steadfastly maintained her innocence since her husband’s bludgeoned body was found in February 2000, reflected on the toll the case took on her family, and what her case said about the criminal justice system.

“This has been a tortuous journey for 22 years, and it’s finally over,” Dorotik, 75, said outside of court minutes after the case was dropped. “And that’s huge relief. But I also want to say it has been a horrendous hurricane for my whole family, and I hope now we have an opportunity for some healing and reconciliation.

“When I say that, I mean healing for everybody, for the criminal justice system too. There has been so much misinformation and inaccurate representation of evidence that I hope the system begins to look at what is truth and justice, as opposed to a zeal to maintain a conviction.”

In a motion dismissing the case, prosecutors Kurt Mechals and Chris Campbell said they had concluded that “the evidence is now insufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The prosecutors said rulings by Kearney on evidence that defense lawyers had challenged influenced their decision. Those rulings excluded or limited how much would be admissible at trial, including key evidence consisting of blood stain pattern analysis, crime scene reconstruction and other forensics.

Key among those rulings was one last week that limited how much evidence would be admitted about tire tracks near where Robert Dorotik’s body was found. Prosecutors had long maintained the tire tracks were unique, and belonged to a pickup truck owned by the Dorotiks.

The ruling scaling back how much of that evidence could be presented was apparently the final blow. “This is a circumstantial evidence case in which the People’s ability to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt depends upon the admission of the full range of evidence,” the dismissal motion said.

At 5:10 p.m. Friday, Mechals emailed defense attorney Michael Cavalluzzi that the case would be dismissed.

Dorotik spent 20 years in prison before being released in April 2020, as her lawyers successfully argued the then-73-year-old was at risk of contracting the coronavirus then racing through the state prison system. Her bid for a new trial was based on new evidence developed by a team of lawyers at the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent, which took on her case in 2015.

Dorotik was convicted of murdering her husband in February 2000. His body was found off a roadside near the family’s Valley Center ranch. She had reported him missing on the evening of Feb. 13, 2000, telling authorities that the last time she saw him was earlier that day as he prepared to go running. She was arrested two days later.

At the time, she was a successful high-level executive for a mental-health services company who raised and trained horses at the family’s Valley Center ranch. She has long insisted she is innocent.

Jane Dorotik (left) and defense attorney Cole Casey listen to testimony during a sentencing hearing at Vista Court in 2001. (Eduardo Contreras/Union-Tribune)

At the trial, prosecutors argued that she had bludgeoned and strangled Robert Dorotik in their bedroom, moved his body from the bedroom downstairs and out the door to a pickup truck, then drove some distance away and dumped the body.

The case against her was nearly entirely circumstantial. There were no eyewitnesses.

After years of unsuccessful appeals by Dorotik, lawyers with the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent took on her case, and soon focused on the forensic work. In 2019, a judge ruled that the blood analysis and DNA evidence used at her trial was erroneous and ordered a hearing to determine if her conviction should be thrown out.

Then in July 2020, prosecutors took the unusual step of acknowledging they could no longer defend the original conviction. They cited new DNA findings as well as problems in the crime lab. Months later, however, the office announced it would again seek to put her on trial.

The lawyers from the Project for the Innocent methodically took apart nearly every aspect of the case that convicted Dorotik, from DNA evidence to blood analysis, blood-spatter evidence, and analysis of tire-track impressions at the crime scene by a California Highway Patrol expert.

That scrutiny revealed errors in forensic work in the case, troubling work records of some criminalists in the San Diego County Regional Crime Lab that were never previously revealed, and allegations that the San Diego District Attorney’s office had suppressed evidence over the years.

Defense lawyers showed that some evidence had been poorly handled, other evidence incompetently analyzed, and contended there had been misconduct and incomplete investigation by law enforcement at the time. Complicating matters: The DA’s office said they lost the original case file, which made dissecting the evidence used in the original case more arduous for the defense.

Lawyers had long criticized the district attorney’s decision to again try the case, using the same evidence from two decades before — and after conceding that the conviction earned from that evidence was something they could no longer defend.

Paula Mitchell, legal director of the innocence project, was harshly critical of the DA’s office, noting that defense lawyers more than a year ago had laid out in detail the problems with the evidence, but were ignored. The defense had requested Kearney dismiss the case “with prejudice,” meaning charges could not be refiled again. But Campbell said prosecutors opposed that, and Kearney declined to follow the defense request.

“While we are really happy they have finally reached this decision to dismiss this case,” Mitchell said, “we are disappointed they are asking for it to be dismissed without prejudice. So this is sort of hanging over her head, so someday she could face murder charges again.

“I think it is a little disingenuous now for them to come and say, ‘Oh, well, we just couldn’t quite make the case work right now, but we might be back.’”

Dorotik said she plans to visit her daughter in Florida and continue advocating for people in prison.

“I always knew, I always believed from the very beginning that at some point the truth would come out, and I would be exonerated,” Dorotik said. “I never for a moment thought it would take 22 years.”