Fayette County hires attorney for judges in Bear Rocks killings case

Mary Pickels
| Thursday, Oct. 17, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Fayette County commissioners this week hired a Greensburg attorney to represent two senior judges named in a civil lawsuit filed by a former Latrobe man who was released from prison when his homicide conviction was dismissed.

Through his attorney, David Joseph Munchinski, 61, filed suit in September seeking unspecified damages from senior Common Pleas Judges Gerald Solomon and Ralph Warman.

The commissioners, in their voting meeting on Tuesday, hired Thomas Pellis of the Meyer Darragh law firm to represent the judges who prosecuted Munchinski in 1986 in a double homicide in Bear Rocks before eventually being elected to the bench.

Solicitor Ken Burkley said the county is responsible for providing legal representation for the judges, even though it is not a defendant.

Commissioners noted that at the time the case originated, the Pennsylvania Counties Risk Pool was not insuring the county and would not pay the judges' defense fees.

Pellis' fee is $175 per hour, Burkley said. Any necessary work done by his associates will be compensated at a lesser rate.

Burkley said he will continue efforts to get the state to take over costs and any judgment.

“It's not an issue we have given up on,” he said.

When Solomon and Warman prosecuted the case, they were representatives of the state, not Fayette County, Burkley said.

“The case is the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania versus Munchinski,” he said. “That is the argument that is going to be pursued.”

Munchinski's suit includes Fayette County attorney John A. Kopas III and the estate of investigating Trooper George Fayock. Solomon, Warman and Kopas prosecuted the case, known as the “Bear Rocks murders.”

Munchinski was exonerated in June when Fayette County Judge Nancy Vernon dismissed homicide charges following a protractedappeals battle that overturned Munchinski's November 1986 conviction in the Dec. 2, 1977 slayings of James “Petey” Alford, 24, and Raymond Gierke, 28, at Gierke's Bear Rocks home.

Two life sentences were imposed in 1987.

Munchinski was released on bail in 2011 when a federal judge overturned the guilty verdict. Prosecutors declined to retry Munchinski.

The suit claims that Solomon, Warman and Fayock withheld evidence in the 1980s indicating that another suspect confessed to the killings and investigative reports that contradicted a prosecution witness's statement.

Had that evidence been shared with the defense, Munchinski “would have been found not guilty and acquitted of all charges,” the suit states.

In September 2011, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the guilty verdict against Munchinski was “highly suspect” and tainted by evidence tampering, prosecutorial misconduct and an unreliable “eyewitness” who was not in the state at the time of the murders.

Online court documents indicate Kopas' attorneys, Bethann Lloyd and Jason R. McLean of Pittsburgh, have filed a motion to dismiss the case against him.

Mary Pickels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com.

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