Lisa Pellegrini, left, Allegheny County assistant district attorney, talks with Mary Michael, the mother of Melissa Groot, after a guilty verdict was announced Friday against Ms. Michael’s former son-in-law, John Minch, who was found guilty of first-degree murder in Groot’s 1999 death.
By Paula Reed Ward / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
To the casual courtroom observer, John Minch did a good job in his closing argument.
It was surprising after the man who represented himself and is described by many as "arrogant" spent the six previous days of his homicide trial stumbling through his notes, rifling through stacks of papers and wasting significant chunks of time attempting to prove points that, in the end, were meaningless.
During his hour-and-20-minute closing Friday morning in the 1999 stabbing death of his ex-wife, Mr. Minch addressed the DNA, the ATM surveillance video, the reliability of jailhouse snitches and even the motive.
Mother, husband react to guilty verdict
The mother and husband of Melissa Groot, stabbed to death in a 1999 homicide, react to the guilty verdict leveled against John Minch. (Video by Paula Reed Ward; 11/15/2013)
He addressed the things in the investigation he thought were lacking: missing reports, untested evidence, unidentified hairs and the possibility someone else did it.
He even talked about his dislike of Lisa Pellegrini, the assistant district attorney trying the case, and what he considered to be discovery violations and the prosecution's goal of getting a conviction at any cost.
But in the end, none of it mattered. In just two hours -- including time to eat their lunch -- the jury of seven women and five men decided that Mr. Minch was guilty of first-degree murder.
He was the one who went into Melissa Groot's Bethel Park home on May 6, 1999, stabbed the 29-year-old woman and then slit her throat.
The mother of the victim, Mary Michael, said afterward she was "thrilled" with the verdict.
"This man has tormented us for almost 30 years," she said. "To have it over, I feel like I've had the world removed from my shoulders."
Mr. Minch will be sentenced by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Philip A. Ignelzi on Feb. 13, but it is really only a formality, as first-degree murder in Pennsylvania calls for a mandatory prison term of life without parole.
The defendant showed no visible reaction as the jury forewoman read the verdict at about 2:30 p.m. Instead, he stood still and quietly at the counsel table and drank from a small paper cup of water.
When asked if he'd like to have the jury polled -- to make each individual juror pronounce him guilty -- Mr. Minch said "no."
When asked his reaction to the verdict as he was led away from the courtroom by sheriff's deputies, his only response was, "I think it's wrong."
Mr. Minch's stand-by counsel, Matt Dugan with the Allegheny County Public Defender's Office, said he understands the jury's verdict based on the way the case was presented.
"I do believe it was a defensible case," Mr. Dugan said. "It's never, ever a good idea to represent yourself. He lacked a clear and concise presentation and never convinced the jury he was credible."
Throughout much of the seven-day trial, Mr. Minch, who was disorganized, repeatedly got stuck in minutia. He'd spend several minutes asking the same questions over and over again -- latching on to what might be a small, moral victory, even though it meant nothing to the substance of the case.
He also spent a lot of time talking about how his relationship with Groot ended when she began seeing the man for whom she would eventually divorce him.
As for the substance of the prosecution's case, he criticized the use of jailhouse snitches who claimed he confessed to them. He referred to one as "a professional informant who's been paid to provide information about people.
"I've been in jail 4 1/2 years and nobody's ever said anything about me supposedly confessing to this crime." Mr. Minch said. "But this is what they do when they find out I have strong evidence that's going to hurt their case."
He also told the jury that investigators had tunnel vision early on in the case -- only considering him and David Groot to be suspects.
"They never ever were interested in looking outside these two suspects," Mr. Minch said.
The day of Melissa Groot's death, David Groot told a co-worker he was worried he was unable to reach his wife on the phone, and that she could be "lying in the bathtub dead," Mr. Minch said.
"When he gets home, what does he find?" the defendant said. "The most amazing coincidence, his wife lying in the bathtub, dead."
He intimated that Mr. Groot framed him, because the man knew he had to attend a custody hearing Downtown that day.
"That's the day Melissa dies. The day David Groot knows where I'm going to be," Mr. Minch said. "I'm not going to be at work. I'm not going to be out with friends. I have to be at court.
"Don't buy this package of lies from Lisa Pellegrini," Mr. Minch concluded. "You have to judge this evidence on its credibility. It's up to you now."
For her part, Ms. Pellegrini began her closing by vehemently dismissing all of Mr. Minch's claims.
"Wow," she began. "This is a vast conspiracy? Since 1999, more than a dozen people have risked their livelihoods, their reputations, to frame this guy? Him?"
"He's worth it? This, this, this," she asked, pointing, "is worth it? How dare he."
Ms. Pellegrini recounted the pieces of evidence, that -- when taken as a whole -- point to only Mr. Minch.
"David Groot took his wife away from him -- the wife he used to beat," she continued.
The hair belonging to Mr. Minch, Ms. Pellegrini said, was collected from the victim's clutched hand.
"From the very first time I saw the photographs of Melissa in the bathtub, I knew it was a rage killing. I knew it was someone who hated her.
"I've been dealing with this defendant for four years. You know what's very obvious to me? He hates women."
As she described how Groot's throat was slashed -- that the woman would have been unable to scream -- the victim's mother whimpered in the front row of the courtroom and began sobbing.
Then, in a dramatic fashion, Ms. Pellegrini took the 13-inch butcher knife used in the killing, and made that slashing motion with her hand, along with a scraping sound with her voice. It was followed by loud grunts for each of the stab wounds Groot sustained.
As she concluded, Ms. Pellegrini walked to the defense table, pointing at Mr. Minch from about 12 inches away.
"There's your real killer," she said. "He's sitting right there. He lied in wait for her. He planned it. And he finally exacted his revenge."
Paula Reed Ward: email@example.com, 412-263-2620 or on Twitter @PaulaReedWard.
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