Judicial panel upholds Munchinski decision
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The state and Fayette County have four months to retry David Joseph Munchinski for the 1977 murders of two men in Fayette County, following a decision Tuesday by appeals judges who agreed with a federal magistrate's negation of his 1986 conviction.
The three 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judges found the Fayette County's violations of evidentiary rules "staggering" and held that Mr. Munchinski "demonstrated his actual innocence by clear and convincing evidence." They found it "difficult to discern any significant justification on this record for continuing to defend what is now acknowledged by all to be a badly tainted and highly suspect conviction."
A spokesman for state Attorney General Linda Kelly said that she had not yet decided what action to take in regard to the 72-page opinion in which the judges rejected her office's effort to reinstate the conviction. Fayette County District Attorney Jack R. Heneks Jr., whose office could also be involved in deciding whether to retry Mr. Munchinski, 60, could not be reached for comment.
The appeals judges backed U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa Pupo Lenihan's 2011 decision reversed Mr. Munchinski's conviction in the murders of Peter Alford and Raymond Gierke in the Laurel Highlands area known as Bear Rocks.
Judge Lenihan found that Fayette County prosecutors hid nearly a dozen items of evidence that could have exonerated Mr. Munchinski, including contradictory statements by the key witness against him. She ordered Mr. Munchinski's release, and he has been living in Florida.
Mr. Munchinski could not be reached for comment.
His attorney, Noah Geary, said the decision was a big step, "but I won't feel that there's true closure until Pennsylvania pays David and compensates him for what they did in taking away 25 years of his life.
"I'm going to be re-filing my malicious prosecution lawsuit" that was dismissed long before Judge Lenihan's decision, Mr. Geary said. "I hope that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will agree to settle this."
And if not?
"These now-judges who were the prosecutors at the time, and the state police, will be put on trial for violations of civil rights. ... I'll be happy to put it in the lap of a federal jury to see what 25 years behind bars is worth when a man is innocent."
The key witness at the 1986 trial, burglar and forger Richard Bowen, initially said that he didn't witness the murders, then claimed he did see them, then later said he was not even in the state when they happened, among other inconsistencies.
Bowen later told the FBI, according to the appeals court opinion, that a state trooper pressured him to testify against Mr. Munchinski and told him what to say, threatening him with a murder charge if he did not cooperate.
That trooper, the opinion said, was later convicted of an unrelated murder.
Bowen has since died.
Also convicted of the killings, which happened in the course of an effort to steal drugs and demand money from the victims, was Leon Scaglione, who died in prison.
First Published September 12, 2012 12:00 am