A western Pennsylvania man in prison for nearly 25 years in a 1977 double murder walked out of state prison Friday after a federal judge said he was wrongfully convicted because of the "outrageous misconduct" of two prosecutors who are now state judges.
David Munchinski, 59, said he wasn't bitter, but his head was "spinning" as he tried to take in his surroundings outside the State Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh.
"Well, if anybody cares, it's a good day today," Munchinski quipped to waiting reporters. "I'm probably gonna get a lobster and shrimp."
Munchinski was released more than five hours after U.S. Magistrate Judge Lisa Lenihan approved Munchinski's request to be released on bail to live with his daughter near Tampa, Fla.
"I'm so happy right now, I'm having a hard time putting it into words," daughter Raina Tousey of New Port Richey, Fla., said after Friday's ruling. "This is the day that we have been waiting for, and I can't wait to take my dad home."
Munchinski's daughter was 11 when he was convicted in 1986 of murdering and sexually assaulting James Alford and Raymond Gierke in Bears Rock, Fayette County, a rural community full of expensive A-frame homes.
Lenihan wrote in a habeas corpus opinion last month that the "outrageous misconduct" of then-Fayette County District Attorney Gerald Solomon and his assistant, Ralph Warman, during the trial "casts a pall of doubt over every single piece of evidence presented by the prosecution in support of its case." In essence, Lenihan found the prosecutors hid evidence that could have cast doubt on Munchinski's guilt.
Solomon and Warman, now both Common Pleas judges in Fayette County, didn't immediately return calls Friday.
"I would hope that they meet justice," Munchinski said of the former prosecutors, but he focused on efforts by his daughter and attorney Noah Geary to free him. They were aided by the Innocence Institute of Point Park University, students led by former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter-turned-professor Bill Moushey who took up Munchinski's case as their first project 10 years ago.
Moushey said his group is "grateful that some things were righted today which Judge Lenihan has said are wrongs."
Munchinski studied the law in prison and helped with the appeal. He said he'd like to work for an attorney if he can find one willing to hire him.
"I knew that they lied and I knew that I had the evidence on them," Munchinski said. "And all I had to do was get a good judge."
The state attorney general's office could have tried to delay or prevent Munchinski's release by appealing the bail order, but didn't. "This was not an entirely unexpected outcome today," Deputy Attorney General Greg Simatic said.
In overturning his conviction last month, Lenihan had ordered Munchinski be retried within 120 days. But that's on hold because prosecutors have already appealed that earlier decision by Lenihan.
What remained in limbo until Friday was whether Munchinski would remain incarcerated until the retrial.
Simatic argued that Munchinski should remain incarcerated because Pennsylvania law generally doesn't permit people to remain free on bond while they're accused of murder.
But Lenihan agreed with Geary that Munchinski, who has Parkinson's disease and other health problems, would be irreparably harmed if he wasn't released and isn't a risk to flee or a danger to the community _ and because the likelihood the prosecution's appeal will succeed "respectfully, is nil," Geary told Lenihan. "Your opinion is iron-clad."
The son of a small-town homicide detective, Munchinski had a reputation with police as a hot-headed tough guy with ties to the drug trade when the murders occurred about 35 miles south of Pittsburgh.
Authorities say Alford and Gierke were murdered in a drug-related dispute that authorities considered unsolved until a man named Richard Bowen claimed in 1982 that he drove Munchinski and Leon Scaglione to the cabin that day.
Munchinski has maintained his innocence. He and Scaglione were tried together in 1983, but the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict. Scaglione later pleaded guilty after giving authorities various versions of the crimes, none of which involved Munchinski. Scaglione refused to testify at Munchinski's second trial in 1986, making Bowen the key witness.
Bowen later recanted his testimony and committed suicide in 1998, one reason Geary predicted Friday that Munchinski will not be retried if prosecutors lose their federal appeal.
"There won't be any retrial because the one witness that's central to the case is deceased, and his testimony was perjured anyway," Geary said.
In ordering the new trial Lenihan agreed with Geary that Solomon and Warman hid a police report suggesting Bowen was in Oklahoma when the killings occurred. Geary contends prosecutors hid 11 other pieces of evidence which suggested, among other things, that semen found at the scene wasn't Munchinski's and which cast doubt on Bowen's claim that the victims were sodomized within minutes of being killed.
Geary plans to sue Warman, Solomon and others involved for malicious prosecution if the 3rd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals upholds Lenihan's ruling overturning the appeal.
"They orchestrated this bogus prosecution that violated David's civil and constitutional rights by not turning over all this exculpatory evidence," Geary said.