Court invalidates conviction for '77 murders

Opinion catalogued decades of error

By Mark Scolforo
Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld a decision to throw out a man’s convictions for two murders in 1977 and said prosecutors in western Pennsylvania committed “staggering” violations of disclosure rules.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of David Joseph Munchinski, who was convicted in 1986 for the shooting deaths of Raymond Gierke and James Peter Alford at a cabin in Bear Rocks, Pa.

The three-judge panel said the murders couldn’t have happened the way Fayette County prosecutors claimed, and Munchinski had produced clear and convincing evidence he is innocent. The 72-page opinion catalogued decades of error by prosecutors, police and judges.

Munchinski’s Pittsburgh lawyer, Noah Geary, said he planned to file a federal civil rights lawsuit against Fayette County officials and the state over malicious prosecution “to see what 25 years of a man’s life is worth.”

“The one thing that’s been missing, which now should finally be the last chapter, is the commonwealth of Pennsylvania should pay this man for the 25 years he wrongfully was incarcerated, and that’s what we’re going to be seeking,” Geary said. “And I would hope that they would just agree to settle.”

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office, which has been handling the appeals, said the opinion was under review.

The appeals judges gave prosecutors four months to retry him. Munchinski has been free since last year, when a district court magistrate judge granted his appeal.

“It seems the commonwealth’s decision to appeal the district court’s judgment may have been motivated by considerations external to this particular case, because it is 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,” wrote Judge D. Brooks Smith.

Munchinski came to the attention of investigators three or four years after the murder when a jailhouse informant named Richard Bowen contacted them with information about the case. He was first tried in 1983, with co-defendant Leon Scaglione, but the jury failed to reach a verdict and a mistrial was declared.
Scaglione was then tried by himself and admitted to the murders, saying Munchinski was not involved, but in November 1986 Munchinski was tried and convicted, sentenced to two life terms. Scaglione refused to testify at that trial.

The appeals court noted that jurors were not told about a deal for leniency granted to Bowen, and Bowen later told the FBI that he had lied on the stand and was coached by the lead investigator, Trooper Montgomery Goodwin. Bowen later committed suicide.

Goodwin was himself convicted in 1988 of third-degree murder for the death of a man seen dancing with his wife. He served nearly 20 years in prison before being paroled in 2008, Smith wrote.

A prosecutor admitted he edited a 1982 report by Goodwin to take out a reference to a recorded statement, Smith wrote. Munchinski later filed an appeal listing 11 items that could have helped his case that he argued had been intentionally suppressed by prosecutors.

Munchinski’s appeals to the state Superior and Supreme courts failed before he won last year in federal court.