Freed after a quarter-century in prison following what federal judges called "a badly tainted and highly suspect conviction" for the Bear Rocks killings, David Joseph Munchinski has sued the men who prosecuted him and is asking that the state pay eight figures to make up for his lost time.
"Fair is fair," said Mr. Munchinski's longtime attorney, Noah Geary, on Wednesday after filing the lawsuit Tuesday night. "The man did 27 years wrongfully, and it's time to do the right thing."
The lawsuit names as defendants three former prosecutors, two of whom are now senior judges on the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas, plus the estate of a late state trooper. But its target is the commonwealth, as it claims the four men were acting as state agents and adds that their actions have been defended by the Office of the Attorney General during a decade of litigation.
"I think it's eight figures," Mr. Geary said of Mr. Munchinski's claim for economic, psychological and punitive damages. He said he hopes the state will settle. Otherwise, "it would be up to a federal jury."
A spokesman for state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who was not in office when Mr. Munchinski was released, had no comment.
Mr. Munchinski claims he was denied his rights to a fair trial and due process. The 61-year-old, who splits time between Allegheny County and Florida, is entering a challenging legal landscape.
"It's going to be hard to show purposeful misconduct on the part of the government," predicted John Rago, an associate professor of law at Duquesne University who chaired the state Committee to Study Wrongful Convictions. While Mr. Munchinski will argue purposeful misconduct, the state may say the prosecutors were, at worse, overzealous, Mr. Rago said.
If it goes to a jury, Mr. Rago said, they'll be asked, "What's a year of your life worth?"
Some exoneration cases settle for big money, as Homewood man Thomas Doswell's did in 2009 when the City of Pittsburgh agreed to pay him $3.77 million following 19 years in prison on a discredited rape conviction.
Bruce Godschalk, a Philadelphia-area man imprisoned for 15 years for two rapes for which he was exonerated, got a $740,000 settlement in 2003.
"I don't know that you can find rhyme or reason in successful or unsuccessful cases," said Marissa Boyers Bluestine, legal director of the Philadelphia-based Pennsylvania Innocence Project, a nonprofit law firm. She counts 11 DNA-based exonerations in the state, four of which have resulted in payment of compensation.
Mr. Munchinski was freed, due not to DNA, but a lost cassette tape and other hidden evidence.
The 1977 murders of Peter Alford and Raymond Gierke in the Bear Rocks area of Fayette County resulted in the conviction of now-deceased Leon Scaglione. Mr. Munchinski was accused of being his accomplice and tried in 1982, but the jury couldn't reach unanimity. He was retried in 1986, and convicted based on the account of Richard A. Bowen, who had faced numerous criminal charges including forgery, assault and theft.
Bowen, now dead, first told investigators that he knew nothing about the murders, but prosecutors and police lost the recording of that account and never disclosed it, according to the complaint. Bowen later claimed he was the getaway driver, and fingered Mr. Munchinski, resulting in a double life sentence.
Prosecutors and police had evidence that Bowen was in Oklahoma at the time of the slayings and otherwise contradicting details of his account, according to the lawsuit. The complaint also indicated that law enforcement had reason to suspect other people of involvement in the crimes.
"There was not one speck of evidence that he was involved, other than the testimony of Richard Bowen," Mr. Geary said. "The man was wrongfully convicted. That's not a stretch. It's a fact."
A state court judge found the evidence against Mr. Munchinski to be tainted, as did U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan and the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Lenihan ordered his release in 2011. A Fayette County judge dismissed all charges in June.
The defendants, who include Fayette County Common Pleas senior judges Gerald Solomon and Ralph Warman, and attorney John A. Kopas III, all former prosecutors, could not be reached for comment. The other defendant is the estate of the late trooper George Fayock.
The New York-based Innocence Project studied DNA-based exonerations and found that 60 percent of those whose convictions were overturned got compensation. Nearly half of those got payment through lawsuits, and most of the rest lived in states that have formulas for paying wrongly imprisoned people. Pennsylvania has no such formula.
Ms. Bluestine said the message of such lawsuits is to "trust juries with information. ... Don't hide it. Don't change it. Play fair."
Rich Lord: email@example.com, 412-263-1542 and on Twitter: @richelord. First Published September 4, 2013 1:45 PM