Fayette asked to foot more bills
By Liz Zemba
Published: Friday, Oct. 25, 2013, 9:26 p.m.
A third person named in a civil lawsuit filed by a former Latrobe man who was released from prison when his homicide conviction was dismissed wants Fayette County to foot his legal bills.
The county is already covering the legal fees for two of the defendants, senior Common Pleas Judges Gerald Solomon and Ralph Warman.
The two are defendants in a civil lawsuit filed by David Joseph Munchinski, 61. Munchinski is seeking unspecified damages from the judges and a former prosecutor, John A. Kopas III.
The two judges prosecuted Munchinski in 1986 in a double homicide in Bear Rocks before eventually being elected to the bench. Kopas was a prosecutor with the district attorney's office at the time.
Commissioners earlier this month hired Thomas Pellis, of the Meyer Darragh law firm, to represent the judges because their insurance carrier will not pay the judges' defense fees. The insurer, Pennsylvania Counties Risk Pool, did not insure the county at the time the case originated.
Kopas currently is represented by attorneys through his private insurance carrier. One of his attorneys, Bethann Lloyd of Pittsburgh, has formally requested the county pay Kopas' legal fees and any judgment.
In a letter to the county, Lloyd indicates the county is responsible for Kopas' legal fees because he worked for the district attorney's office at the time of Munchinski's prosecution.
Ken Burkley, county solicitor, said he is looking into the request. Burkley said Kopas had not previously made a formal request for representation. Solomon and Warman, he said, made such requests immediately after the civil lawsuit was filed.
Burkley said he is still looking into the possibility of having the state take over legal costs and any judgment. He said that when the case was prosecuted, the three men were representing the commonwealth, as opposed to the county.
In addition to Solomon, Warman and Kopas, Munchinski's suit includes 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 protracted appeals 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.
Liz Zemba is a reporter for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-601-2166 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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