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Westmoreland

DNA evidence gets new trial for man convicted in 1990 New Kensington rape case

Rich Cholodofsky
| Wednesday, May 23, 2018, 2:51 p.m.

A former Harrison man, jailed since 1991 for the rape of a New Kensington woman, chided prosecutors Wednesday after a judge ordered a new trial based on DNA evidence in the decades-old case.

"The commonwealth needs to really know what they are doing before they put an innocent man in jail," John Kunco, 52, said as he was led from the Westmoreland County Courthouse to the county jail, where he was to be released. "After 28 years they still don't want to let it go."

Common Pleas Court Judge Christopher Feliciani ordered a retrial after lawyers for the Innocence Project argued testing revealed Kunco's DNA was not found on evidence collected at the crime scene. Also factoring into the retrial was unreliable bite mark testimony and what Feliciani called a faulty voice identification used to convict Kunco.

"To me, this is overwhelming," the judge said.

Prosecutors said they plan to appeal the ruling.

Kunco told reporters he was relieved to win a new trial but still angered at what he believes was a wrongful conviction.

A jury in 1991 convicted Kunco of rape and other offenses for the brutal sexual assault and torture of a 55-year-old woman in her home. He was sentenced in 1992 to serve 45 to 90 years in prison.

Prosecutors said Kunco broke into the woman's apartment in December 1990, blindfolded her with her underwear, shocked her with a frayed electrical cord, then raped her and forced her to perform sexual acts.

According to court records, the woman identified Kunco, a maintenance man at her apartment building, by his lisp. At trial, prosecutors showed jurors photographs of a healed bite mark on the woman that experts said matched a dental imprint of Kunco's mouth.

The defense has since maintained the bite mark evidence used to convict Kunco was based on faulty science. DNA testing last year of a blanket believed to have been present during the rape found no traces of Kunco's genetic material, according to the defense. DNA evidence was not presented during Kunco's trial. The victim's voice identification of Kunco was flawed because it was based on a detective's imitation, the defense claimed.

Feliciani ruled the totality of the evidence presented against Kunco along with the recent DNA discovery would likely not have resulted in a conviction at the original trial.

For the past decade, Kunco has been represented by the Innocence Project of New York. Attorney Karen Thompson said Kunco maintained his innocence since he was arrested and, in court Wednesday, read a portion of a statement he made after he was sentenced in 1992.

"I did not do this. If it takes me 120 years to prove my innocence, I will do so," Kunco said at the time.

Loren Kunco was an infant when her father was convicted and said she only learned about the case from her mother, who always believed he was innocent.

She visited her father in prison until the age of 5 but had not seen him since, until Wednesday. She was in court to watch him win his three-decade struggle for freedom.

"I think I always knew he was innocent. The original case file, it's right in your face that he's innocent," Loren Kunco said.

Patricia Kunco, 30, of Clarion County, said the family expects to have a party to celebrate her uncle's release.

"I always knew something didn't sound right," she said.

No decision has been made as to whether Kunco will be retried, Assistant District Attorney Jim Hopson said.

The victim has since died and much of the evidence against Kunco has been either discredited or lost, Thompson said.

"Nothing about this conviction was justified. None of the evidence fits this crime," Thompson said. "There is no proof."

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

John Kunco smiles as he is released from prison after serving 26 years for the rape of a New Kensington woman.
Tribune-Review
John Kunco smiles as he is released from prison after serving 26 years for the rape of a New Kensington woman.
John Kunco is escorted by Westmoreland County Sheriff's deputies from the Westmoreland County Courthouse on Wednesday, May 23, 2018 in Greensburg.
Shane Dunlap | Tribune-Review
John Kunco is escorted by Westmoreland County Sheriff's deputies from the Westmoreland County Courthouse on Wednesday, May 23, 2018 in Greensburg.
John Kunco
John Kunco
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