Kunco, freed of rape conviction, pleads guilty to lesser charges; to be released
John Kunco, the Allegheny County man who served more than 28 years in prison for a New Kensington rape he said he didn’t commit, pleaded guilty Friday to reduced charges.
Kunco, 54, was immediately paroled and was expected to be released from jail later Friday under terms of the sentence imposed by Westmoreland County Common Pleas Judge Christopher Feliciani.
The judge ordered Kunco to serve a 14- to 28-year prison sentence, which he has completed.
“It was very important to us that he admitted culpability. To us, it was a terrible crime,” Assistant District Attorney Barbara Jollie said.
Kunco pleaded guilty to aggravated assault, unlawful restraint, terroristic threats and burglary. He declined to comment as sheriff’s deputies escorted him from the county courthouse back to the jail.
Lawyers for The Innocence Project in New York represented Kunco, who they said still maintains that he did not commit the rape.
“Unfortunately, the risk of reconviction and returning to prison for a crime he did not commit was not one he could assume,” The Innocence Project said in a statement. “Gaining his freedom and being with his family is Mr. Kunco’s priority. His attorneys and the Innocence Project support his decision and stand behind his innocence in this case. …
“According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 18% of known exonerees pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit. The Innocence Project is hopeful that Mr. Kunco can successfully move forward, spend precious time with his family and successfully rebuild his life after losing nearly 30 years to this injustice.”
Kunco’s plea came as a surprise. He was scheduled to appear in court Friday afternoon for a hearing to update the judge on the status of his case as his lawyers sought to have all charges dismissed.
Jollie said Kunco said nothing during the brief plea hearing Friday morning.
“We had really serious evidentiary issues. The victim is dead and the prosecuting officer is dead, but we wanted him to be accountable,” Jollie said.
Various pieces of physical evidence, such as a rape kit taken from the victim, could not be located. Defense lawyers maintained a lack of DNA evidence at the crime scene proved Kunco’s innocence.
Kunco was originally originally convicted of rape and other offenses for the violent sexual assault of a 55-year-old woman in her New Kensington apartment. He was sentenced to serve 45 to 90 years in prison.
Police said that on Dec. 16, 1990, the woman awoke at 5 a.m. to let her cat out and returned to bed without locking her door. Five minutes later, she looked up to see a man standing beside her bed. He threatened her with a knife and dragged her to a bathroom, where he forced her to perform oral sex.
The assailant then took her to a bedroom, where for the next seven hours he repeatedly sexually assaulted her using various objects while her face was covered, prosecutors said.
Kunco previously denied he was the woman’s attacker and at trial claimed he had an alibi.
Prosecutors at trial relied on the woman’s testimony as well as evidence of healed bite marks on her body that experts linked at trial to Kunco. The victim identified Kunco as her attacker, in part because of his distinctive lisp.
In May 2018, following a series of appeals filed on Kunco’s behalf by The Innocence Project, Feliciani said he was troubled by the evidence and vacated the conviction. The judge released Kunco as he awaited a new trial.
“The results of the DNA testing, which were unavailable at the time of his trial, from two pieces of crime scene evidence previously excluded Mr. Kunco and identified the same single source of an unknown male profile on both items,” The Innocence Project said Friday. “Furthermore, his original conviction rested on bite mark comparison evidence, a completely discredited technique that two forensic dentists testified about at trial, but later recanted their testimony.”
Charged after release
Shortly after Kunco was released, police in Allegheny County charged him with having improper contact with a child. He was returned to jail in Westmoreland County. Last month, Kunco pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge of indecent assault against an unconscious person and sentenced by an Allegheny County judge to serve five years on probation. He is also required to register as a convicted sex offender for the next 25 years.
Jollie said Friday prosecutors had no doubt Kunco was guilty of the New Kensington rape nearly three decades ago.
“It’s been a long road,” Jollie said.
Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Rich at 724-830-6293, [email protected] or via Twitter .