Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Conviction in 1977 Fayette County murders tossed out

Innocence Institute of Western Pennsylvania's 1st Case Deals Resounding Blow to Prosecutor Misconduct

Saturday, October 02, 2004

By Bill Moushey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Citing pervasive misconduct by prosecutors, a judge yesterday reversed convictions against a man imprisoned for nearly 20 years in a double murder case in Fayette County.

Visiting Judge Barry Feudale also threatened to release the suspect in 10 days if prosecutors do not furnish a witness' statement they contend does not exist.

Feudale accused three former Fayette County prosecutors -- two of whom are now judges -- of "seeking and maintaining convictions to the detriment of the search for the truth" in the case of a grisly murder of two men in a Laurel Mountains cabin in 1977.

The suspect, David Munchinski, "was wrongly convicted because of patent and ongoing prosecutorial misconduct," wrote Feudale, a Northumberland County judge who was appointed to the case in 2002. He said it was the first such reversal he has granted in 17 years on the bench.

Last night, Munchinski's daughter Raina, 29, who has worked to free her father for the last decade, expressed joy at the ruling. She said she and Noah Geary, her father's attorney from Washington, Pa., were able to relay the news to her father via telephone at the State Correctional Institution Fayette.

Munchinski told his daughter the turn of events was "like a dream come true."

Munchinski and Leon Scaglione, who has since died in prison, were convicted in 1986 of killing and sodomizing James Peter Alford, 24, and Raymond Gierke, 28. Munchinski was given two life sentences.

In his 120-page opinion, Feudale repeatedly challenged the assertions and actions of Fayette County Common Pleas Judges Gerald Solomon and Ralph Warman, who served as district attorney and first assistant district attorney during Munchinski's trials in 1983 and 1986, and John Kopas, a first assistant district attorney who handled part of Munchinski's appeal.

At the root of the appeal were prosecutors' actions related to their star witness during two trials -- one of which ended in a hung jury -- and a series of appeals over the past 18 years.

The star witness, a repeat criminal named Richard Bowen, testified that he was the getaway driver for Munchinski and Scaglione when they committed the murders in an area known as Bear Rocks during a supposed drug ripoff.

Years after his conviction, Munchinski secured 11 reports from Pennsylvania State Police containing information he says would have changed the jury verdicts.

One of the reports suggested Bowen may have been in Oklahoma on the day of the killing. Another said Bowen's initial statement to police on Sept. 9, 1982, was recorded on audiotape. It was never turned over to Munchinski's defense and prosecutors have steadfastly maintained no such tape exists.

Bowen's statement became important in the years after the trial when he twice recanted his testimony, saying state police had coached him in what to say. Later, Bowen stuck by his original story before he hanged himself in an Oklahoma jail.

During a hearing in 2002, a former state trooper now in prison on an unrelated matter testified he accurately wrote in a police report that he was present when Warman turned on a tape recorder to record Bowen as Solomon sat at his desk.

Under oath earlier this year, Warman said he not only did not recall the actual interview, but could not remember if Bowen's statement was taped.

Solomon and another former state trooper said the interview was not taped.

Warman acknowledged that when he later noticed the trooper's written statement included mention of a tape recording of Bowen, he cut and pasted it -- with Solomon's knowledge -- to remove any mention of taping.

Feudale said Warman, in altering the trooper's report, "so undermined the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place."

Feudale said that even if no tape was made, Bowen's oral statement should have been reduced to writing and turned over to the defense because of Bowen's penchant for lying.

The opinion also said the two former prosecutors committed "intentional misconduct" in failing to provide Munchinski with information about payments made to Bowen, as well as favorable treatment Bowen received on other crimes he committed in Westmoreland County, in exchange for his testimony.

"Not only did Solomon and Warman fail to disclose this to the defense ... Warman improperly argued to the jury that all Bowen received was immunity in exchange for his testimony," the judge wrote.

Feudale rebuked Kopas for falsely representing to another judge during Munchinski's appeal that he had examined the entire case file seeking anything regarding Bowen.

Feudale called Kopas' conduct "patent and egregious," and stated he "discredited himself and the system of justice he took an oath to uphold."

Reacting to the ruling, Munchinski's attorney Geary said: "The conduct of Judges Solomon and Warman and First Assistant District Attorney Kopas was an abomination and their testimony to cover up their misdeeds was atrocious."

Raina Munchinski's efforts and the issues in the case were reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in June 2002 as part of a partnership with the Innocence Institute of Western Pennsylvania, a journalism-based investigative reporting project at Point Park University.

Spokesman Sean Connolly of the state attorney general's office, which now represents Fayette County in the case, said he couldn't comment because officials there hadn't seen the decision.

Bill Moushey can be reached at bmoushey@pointpark.edu or 412-392-3416.

Click HERE to read Bill Moushey's 2002 "A Question of Innocence".

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