New evidence found in Bethel Park police files delays man's trial in ex-wife's 1999 killing
August 29, 2013 8:00 PM
By Paula Reed Ward Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Bethel Park police officers were investigating the 1999 death of Melissa Groot, they took their case to profilers at the FBI for help.
What that review showed -- according to notes discovered Wednesday at the Bethel Park police department -- is that the person identified by the FBI as the likely killer is not who ultimately was charged with her death.
That information was revealed Thursday to the man who is accused in Groot's death -- and who was scheduled to go to trial on the matter Tuesday.
Instead, the case against John Minch, 46, for allegedly killing his ex-wife on May 6, 1999, has been postponed until November so that he and the attorney assisting him can investigate the new discovery.
"It could be an egregious violation. It could be gross negligence," said Matt Dugan, stand-by counsel for Mr. Minch, who is representing himself. "I have no idea what happened."
The issue was revealed Thursday morning in a hearing before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning.
Assistant district attorney Lisa Pellegrini, the interim head of the homicide unit, told the judge she went to the Bethel Park headquarters because she thought it would be "prudent to search their files and records," after Mr. Minch had alleged that many items of discovery had still not been provided to him.
What the prosecutor found, she said, included 30 pages of various police reports, letters from the victim's mother and photographs. In addition, Ms. Pellegrini continued, she found information regarding an anonymous call identifying someone else as the killer, as well as the notes taken during a meeting with an FBI profiling team.
"How is it that, Ms. Pellegrini, three days before trial and after jury selection, the commonwealth finds things it didn't have before?" Judge Manning asked, raising his voice. "What is going on?"
She explained that the Bethel Park detective had turned the items over to a county homicide detective, but that he had retired several years ago.
During the hearing, Mr. Minch reiterated to the court that he has been in jail awaiting trial for 41/2 years.
"Do you have any idea how frustrating this is?" he asked. "How is it possible the DA has no familiarity with the discovery packet I was given?"
Bethel Park police Chief John Mackey said Thursday that anything his department would have had from the original investigation would have been provided at the time the Allegheny County police homicide unit took over the case.
"When we reach out to another agency, it's in our best interest to share with them everything we have, because the ultimate goal here is justice," Chief Mackey said. "We gave [them] everything we have; [they] determine what's important or what's not."
Allegheny County homicide Lt. Andrew Schurman could not be reached for comment.
Mike Manko, a spokesman for the DA's office, said prosecutors immediately notified the court when they learned of the additional discovery this week so it could be turned over to the defense.
"While it can be argued that some of the new evidence is exculpatory, we do not believe that it changes the overall merits of the case," he said.
Mr. Manko said that smaller municipal police departments often don't investigate homicides on their own and refer them to county police and turn over their files.
"While it is not an everyday occurrence, it is certainly not unprecedented for some files and evidence to be transmitted after the judicial process has begun," Mr. Manko said.
He noted that Judge Manning gave no indication at Thursday's hearing that he believed there was misconduct in the case.
Chief Mackey said he didn't want to point fingers, but added, "My interests are in protecting our agency and our reputation.
"For somebody to look at it years later and maybe imply Bethel Park did something improper, then I have a problem with that, because in my mind, that's not what happened here.
"If we made a mistake, and I knew it, I would say we did."
Whatever happened, Chief Mackey said, he does not believe it was intentional.
"It's our job not to 'pin it' on somebody, but to do our investigation, come up with the evidence and charge the person who is responsible," he said. "We're not framing people in order to get a conviction.
"To me, that's not justice."
Wesley Oliver, who teaches criminal procedure at Duquesne University School of Law, said delaying the trial to allow the defense time to investigate was the right decision.
He also said he believed there should be an internal investigation to find out why the materials weren't turned over.
"You would hope the district attorney's office would be concerned this might happen again," Mr. Oliver said. "But their focus isn't always as keenly on the protection of the innocent as it should be."
Mr. Manko said his office had no plans to conduct a review.
At the conclusion of Thursday's hearing, Mr. Dugan asked that Mr. Minch be released to home electronic monitoring pending trial.
Ms. Pellegrini argued that her office is seeking a first-degree murder conviction, and that under Pennsylvania law, that is not a bailable offense.
Judge Manning referred to a case he had in 1993 which led to a change in the law that prohibited bail in those cases.
Prosecutors had agreed to release DeShawn Rosemond on $50,000 straight bond, assuming he could not post that amount. But a relative put up her home, and he was released.
He was accused of killing two people nine months later. That case spawned a constitutional amendment denying bond in first first-degree murder cases.
Judge Manning told Mr. Minch he would take his request under advisement.