Munchinski to seek compensation for 24 years in prison in 'Bear Rocks' murders
Following a brief hearing, a Fayette County judge on Friday dismissed double homicide charges against David J. Munchinski, a former Latrobe man who spent more than 20 years in prison.
Moments later, his attorney announced that Munchinski plans to seek compensation for his two decades in prison.
A judge in 1987 imposed two life sentences on Munchinski, 60, in the case known as “The Bear Rocks Murders,” in which James “Petey” Alford, 24, and Raymond Gierke, 28, were killed at Gierke's home on Dec. 2, 1977.
He was released from prison on bond in October 2011 pending a retrial after serving 24 years of a life sentence.
In September, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled his conviction in Fayette County was “highly suspect” and tainted by evidence tampering, prosecutorial misconduct and an unreliable “eyewitness” who was not at the murder scene.
The appeals court ordered that all charges be dismissed if Munchinski was not retried within 120 days, according to a motion from his attorney, Noah Geary.
Munchinski, who said in 2011 that he has Parkinson's disease and a degenerative spinal disease, walked into Common Pleas Judge Nancy Vernon's courtroom on Friday using a cane.
Geary said the state had not retried Munchinski within the required 120 days.
“The charges originated in this county and can only be dismissed by a judge of this county,” Geary said.
Deputy Attorney General Greg J. Simatic told Vernon the state has no pending criminal charges against Munchinski.
“There are pending criminal charges ... until they are dismissed,” Geary said.
Vernon based her finding on the state's confirmation that it did not intend to retry Munchinski and that the state “did not pursue the case with due diligence.
“All charges ... are dismissed, with prejudice,” meaning they cannot be refiled, Vernon said.
Family members smiled as they accompanied Munchinski out of the courtroom.
Following the hearing, Munchinski deferred comment to Geary.
“So it's been a long time coming. We are very pleased. We are going to be approaching legal counsel for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to discuss compensation for David. ... The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals said that his was a highly suspect and tainted conviction. We look forward to negotiating some type of settlement (with the state) for the 27 years taken away from him. If the commonwealth is not interested in doing that, then we will be happy to file a civil lawsuit in federal court ... and see what a jury in federal court thinks 27 years of a human being's life is worth,” Geary said.
Reached after the hearing, Simatic said his office analyzed the case and available witnesses and evidence before declining to retry Munchinski.
“There was no way to put together a legitimate case we felt comfortable taking to trial at this time. It was just not in the cards,” Simatic said.
He declined to comment on Geary's intention to seek compensation for Munchinski.
Alford's and Gierke's shooting deaths went unsolved for five years, until Munchinski and Leon Scaglione of New Alexandria were arrested based on a statement to police by informant Richard Bowen.
Although Bowen claimed he drove the two men to Bear Rocks on the night of the murders, evidence showed that he was in Oklahoma at the time and that the car he said he drove was not purchased until six months after the killings.
Bowen later committed suicide.
Scaglione was convicted and sentenced to life. He died in prison, but not before he admitted the killings and exonerated Munchinski.
Prior to proceeding with the hearing, Vernon asked both attorneys if either objected to her hearing the motion to dismiss. Vernon was the Fayette County District Attorney in 2002, when the sitting bench recused itself from the case.
Northumberland County Judge Barry Feudale Sr. was appointed to hear Munchinski's 2003 appeal after all the Fayette County judges recused themselves because the appeal was based on claims of prosecutorial misconduct.
In his 2004 ruling, Feudale found that former Fayette County prosecutors and now senior Common Pleas Judges Ralph Warman and Gerald Solomon tampered with or withheld evidence during 1983 and 1986 trials. He ruled that former Fayette County prosecutor John Kopas continued to withhold evidence during Munchinski's earlier appeals of his conviction.
Geary stated that he had earlier this year requested an out-of-county judge through the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. He said he was told that as Vernon was not on the bench in 2002, he should present his motion to her and he did not object.
Mary Pickels is a staff writer with Trib Total Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or724-836-5401.