On Tuesday, nearly a year to the day after they secured an order overturning John Kunco’s 1991 rape conviction and ordering a new trial, lawyers from the Innocence Project were back in Westmoreland County.
And Kunco, 53, who had been released from prison amid a celebration May 23, 2018, was back in court in shackles and prison garb, listening intently as his lawyers argued to have the rape charges dismissed entirely.
It’s been a year of ups and downs for the former handyman from Harrison. Before his release last spring, Kunco had served 28 years in prison for his conviction in a jury trial in the brutal rape and torture of a 55-year-old New Kensington woman.
But three months after his release on bond, he was arrested in Allegheny County on unrelated charges of improper sexual contact with a young child. His bond was revoked, and he has remained jailed pending proceedings in that case.
Three lawyers from the Innocence Project’s New York office on Tuesday were back in front of Common Pleas Court Judge Christopher Feliciani, the jurist who overturned Kunco’s rape conviction.
Feliciani overturned Kunco’s conviction after the lawyers presented arguments that recently recovered male DNA found on a blanket and severed lamp cord from the crime scene did not match Kunco’s. They also argued that bite mark evidence admitted at trial had since fallen into disrepute in the scientific community.
Lawyers Adnan Sultan, Jane Pucher and Vanessa Potkin of the Innocence Project joined Pittsburgh attorney Thomas Farrell in arguing that charges should be dismissed because Kunco’s right to a fair trial had been compromised by the destruction of the rape kit in a flooded police evidence room and the death of at least two major witnesses, including the victim, who would not be available for cross-examination.
Had the rape kit been preserved, they argued, DNA tests not available in 1991 might have excluded Kunco as the rapist, and such evidence might have caused the victim to reconsider her testimony that she recognized Kunco, whom she could not see, by his distinctive lisp.
Assistant District Attorneys Barbara Jollie and James Hopson argued the destruction of the rape kit should not be considered an issue because it was never admitted at trial and any DNA evidence that might have been recovered could have implicated Kunco.
Feliciani gave Kunco’s defense team 30 days to submit briefs on their arguments and said prosecutors would have another 30 days to answer those arguments.
A pair of women who sat several rows back in the courtroom during two hours of arguments and identified themselves only as members of Kunco’s family huddled quietly after the hearing.
“I thought the case was going to be dismissed today,” one of them said, looking down.