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Testimony pays off; Irwin goes free

WASHINGTON, Pa. - A former criminal homicide suspect who became a key witness in a cold-case murder trial has been set free.

During a sentencing hearing Thursday, Washington County Common Pleas Judge Janet Moschetta Bell imposed a minimum sentence of "one year less one day" for a hindering apprehension or prosecution charge against Howard Edward Irwin Jr., 41, of Charleroi.

The sentence was part of a plea deal that required Irwin to enter the guilty plea and to testify against the two men convicted Tuesday of first-degree murder for the shooting death of John Newman, of California, Pa.

Prosecutors dropped criminal homicide and conspiracy to commit criminal homicide charges against Irwin.

Michael "Cleveland Mike" Duncan, 34, of Amherst, Ohio, and John Ira Bronson Jr., 54, a Monessen native, face life prison terms with no chance for parole for the Feb. 3, 2003, execution-style slaying.

Newman's wife, Brenda, and daughter, Lindsey, found his body in a car outside their house. He died from a single 9 mm gunshot to the head.

Bell ordered that Irwin, who has been incarcerated since Jan. 14, 2011, be released after he reported to a probation officer Thursday.

The judge placed Irwin on probation for the remainder of the maximum sentence, which is two years less two days.

He had been in the Greene County Prison for the last two months.

After more than eight hours of deliberation Tuesday, a jury found Duncan and Bronson guilty of first-degree murder and criminal conspiracy to commit homicide.

Irwin testified that Duncan was the shooter.

Irwin testified that Duncan said he wanted to kill Newman because Newman "was a snitch."

Irwin was charged a year ago with criminal homicide, conspiracy to commit homicide and hindering apprehension or prosecution. Irwin, Bronson and Duncan were charged as a result of a Washington County Grand Jury investigation.

Prosecutors alleged Newman was a drug addict and street-level dealer who agreed to conduct a controlled drug buy from Bronson.

After Bronson was arrested, he agreed to become a confidential informant for the state police. Instead, he sought to have Newman killed.

On Jan. 20, Michael McCarthy testified that while incarcerated in the Washington County Correctional Facility on Dec. 16, Bronson told him about a meeting he had with Duncan, during which Newman's murder was discussed.

Bronson said the meeting took place in Irwin's apartment in Daisytown, McCarthy testified.

Irwin arrived after the meeting began, according to testimony.

During Irwin's sentencing hearing, Assistant District Attorney Darren Newberry told the judge Irwin cooperated with authorities.

"He has fulfilled his requirements of the plea agreement," Newberry said. "The Commonwealth does not believe that Mr. Irwin was involved in the actual planning or homicide of Mr. John Newman."

The judge asked state Trooper James Monkelis to validate Irwin's level of cooperation.

Monkelis said Irwin was fully cooperative.

Irwin's attorney, Alan Benyak, of Charleroi, told the judge his client is an "intelligent and charming" man and a graduate of California University of Pennsylvania.

"I hope this event helps Mr. Irwin rehabilitate," Benyak said. "Every day is a day he cannot recapture. I hope he uses this to go forward. ... This is a very dark moment in his life, and I'm hoping we will not see him in Washington County Court again."

Benyak said Irwin has constantly been willing to testify.

""It just didn't happen when the pot was sweetened," Benyak said. "He intended to testify from the beginning."

After the hearing, Benyak said he rarely becomes involved in murder trials.

"I met Howard in March 2000 at the gym where I was working out," Benyak said. "He was introduced to me by a mutual friend, and we've been friends ever since. ... Hopefully, he moves on and gets a legit job."

When Irwin entered the courtroom, Benyak greeted him with a hug. The two embraced again after the sentencing.

Walking out of the courtroom, Irwin expressed relief.

"I'm just glad that it's all over," he said.

Asked to share the first thing he planned to do after being released, Irwin said, "I'm going to get some good food ... some sushi."

Steve Fisher, chief of staff for the district attorney's office, declined to gauge the importance of Irwin's testimony because defendants have appeal rights.

"I will say we believe that his cooperation was full and complete in regard to his plea agreement," Fisher said. "That, of course, is helpful, appreciated and important, in and of itself."

Fisher said the convictions are proof of a concerted effort involving "numerous law enforcement agencies."

"That was a nine-year, cold case homicide," he said. "If it weren't for the grand jury proceedings, which occurred over two years ago, this case would not have come to trial. If it weren't for the dedication of Trooper Monkelis, it would have never gone forward.

"This was a remarkable effort by numerous people. It goes to the fact that, for the community of California, where this occurred, and homicide being such a heinous act, law enforcement will pursue those acts, and we will always seek justice. That's the message today."

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