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A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Monday, August 15, 2005

Munchinski files federal suit against Fayette County Judges

A former Latrobe man who remains incarcerated on a double murder conviction despite a judge’s reversal of it last fall has filed a federal suit claiming lawmen in Fayette County violated his civil rights by withholding and altering evidence that could have cleared him in the 1977 murders.


David J. Munchinski, who remains incarcerated while appeals of a judge’s order to reverse his convictions, vacate his sentence and grant him release are contested, filed suit Friday in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.


The 21-page document claims Gerald Solomon and Ralph Warman, former prosecutors who are now Fayette County Common Pleas Judges, former prosecutor John Kopas III and three former state police detectives violated Munchinski’s rights at trial and over the course of 20 years of imprisonment.


Munchinski’s lawyer, Noah Geary of Washington, Pa., accused the lawmen of intentionally manufacturing false evidence, destroying and doctoring real evidence and, among other things, hiding leniency deals for witnesses who testified against Munchinski, now 52, during two trials.


“As the direct and proximate result of this perversion and abuse of the process, Munchinski has suffered harm…he has served twenty years, wrongfully, in various state penitentiaries for crimes he did not commit,” wrote Geary.


Last October, Senior Judge Barry Feudale of Northumberland County, who was appointed to the case after Fayette judges removed themselves from it, ruled prosecutors and agents violated Munchinski’s civil rights during and after trial in a 1977 double-murder in a Laurel Mountain area known as Bear Rocks.

Problems in the case were reported in stories in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in June 2002 produced as part of a partnership with the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, a journalism-based investigative reporting curricula where students probe into and write about real-world allegations of wrongful convictions and prosecutorial misconduct.

At the root of the appeal over Munchinski’s convictions with another man in the slaying and sodomizing of James Peter Alford, 24, and Raymond Gierke, 28, were actions by prosecutors related to its star witness during two trials – one which ended in a hung jury—and a series of appeals over the past 18 years.

In testimony that was repeatedly contradicted by him and others, repeat criminal Richard Bowen testified he was the getaway driver for Munchinski and Leon Scaglione, who has since died in prison, when they committed the murders during a supposed drug rip-off.

Years after his conviction, Munchinski secured eleven reports from Pennsylvania State Police, suggesting Bowen may have been in Oklahoma on the day of the killing and that the controversial witnesses’ initial statement to police on September 9, 1982 was recorded on audio tape. It was never turned over to Munchinski’s defense and prosecutors have steadfastly maintained none exists.

Bowen’s taped 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.

During a post-trial hearing, Warman admitted when he later noticed a trooper’s 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’s action in altering the trooper’s Bowen report, “so undermined the truth-determining process that no reliable adjudication of guilt or innocence could have taken place.”

In his lawsuit, Geary listed the missing tape issues and as well as other allegations of “intentional misconduct” by prosecutors for failing to provide Munchinski with information about payments and favorable treatment given to Bowen for his testimony or reports naming others as suspects in the slayings.

None of them could be reached for comment.

Post-Gazette Staff Writer Bill Moushey, who is also director of the Innocence Institute of Point Park University can be reached at Bmoushey@pointpark.edu, www.pointpark.edu/innocence or 412-392-3416.

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