A Superior Court judge declined on Friday to dismiss the murder case against Jane Dorotik and ordered the former Valley Center woman who has spent nearly 20 years in prison for killing her husband to stand trial a second time.
The rulings by Vista Superior Court Judge Robert Kearney concluded a nearly-year long, on-again, off-again preliminary hearing where lawyers for Dorotik attacked nearly every element of the case that got her convicted by a Jury in 2001.
They 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 the San Diego District Attorney’s office had suppressed evidence over the years.
During the proceedings the DA’s office had to disavow the expert credentials of former criminalist Charles Merritt, whose testimony about blood-stain and blood-spatter evidence was key to the original case, because another expert said his work did not meet the standards for bloodstain pattern analysis in place in 2000.
As a result of the work by Dorotik’s lawyers from the Project for the Innocent at Loyola Law School, Merritt and another retired criminalist, Connie Milton, each became the subject of letters that the DA’s office sent to defense lawyers last year. The letters said each had been the subject of corrective action memos — the lab’s method of identifying mistakes — that could have an impact on their credibility as witnesses.
Those issues will likely be raised again at a second trial, which is now set for April 27.
Dorotik was convicted of murdering her husband Robert in February 2000. His body was found off a roadside not far from the couple’s Valley Center ranch. She had reported him missing in the evening of Feb. 13, 2000. Jane Dorotik told 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 Jane Dorotik was a successful high-level executive for a mental health services company who also raised and trained horses at the family’s Valley Center ranch. She has long insisted she is innocent.
At the trial prosecutors argued that she had bludgeoned and strangled Robert Dorotik in their bedroom, then 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, relying on forensics such as crime-scene and blood analysis. There were no eyewitnesses.
After years of unsuccessful appeals by Dorotik, lawyers with the Project for the Innocent took on her case, and soon focused on the forensic work. In 2015 they won a ruling to test a rope used to strangle Robert Dorotik and scrapings from underneath his fingernails for DNA.
The results revealed foreign DNA and excluded Jane Dorotik as a contributor. Later tests on clothing that her husband was wearing also revealed DNA that did not belong to Jane Dorotik. 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.
On Friday Michael Cavalluzzi, one of Dorotik’s lawyers, argued that Kearney should use the power judges have to end the case by dismissing the charges entirely. Prosecutors had introduced no new evidence in the hearing, he said, and instead continued to rely on evidence from the original trial that was no longer reliable or credible.
In a two-hour argument, he said critical elements of the case against her had been refuted or at least thrown into so much doubt no jury would convict her.
Among those was testimony from a medical examiner who said that Robert Dorotik would have lost two to three liters of blood given the severity of the attack on him. However there was virtually no blood found in the bedroom, and no evidence that Jane Dorotik had embarked on a massive cleanup of the scene.
He also slammed prosecutors for withholding evidence or not promptly turning it over. One example: at the trial the prosecution told jurors the murder weapon was probably a hammer, and displayed a common household hammer to the jury.
But the defense found out during the hearing that test conducted in 2001 showed that particles of black paint found in Robert Dorotik’s skull wound were consistent with pain from a crowbar — and not a hammer.
One of the issues in the case was that the original case file from the DA’s office was lost at some point over the years, making it nearly impossible to know what was turned over and what was not to Dorotik’s defense lawyers at the time of the trial.
In response, Deputy District Attorney Kurt Mechals argued the questions raised by the defense are best sorted out by a jury, and dismissing it now would be unjust to Robert Dorotik. He said he did not agree that Jane Dorotik was wrongly convicted, and that the core of the case arguing that she was the killer remained.
Kearney concluded that dismissing the case now was not warranted for a number of reasons. He said that the prosecution case did rely on circumstantial evidence — but noted that evidence cuts both ways, and that there was enough circumstantial evidence pointing to her guilt to require a second trial.