By Rich Cholodofsky- Pittsburgh Tribune Review- Pittsburgh, PA
The Innocence Project of New York has filed an appeal of a conviction of an Allegheny County man found guilty in 1992 of brutally raping a New Kensington woman, saying prosecutors used bogus science at his trial.
John Kunco is now 43 and serving a 45- to 90-year prison sentence. He was found guilty in a four-day trial in 1992 that heavily relied on testimony from forensic dentists concerning a bite mark found on his victim's shoulder.
Experts, using science available to them in the early 1990s, found the bite marks were made by Kunco.
But Innocence Project lawyers, in court documents filed last week in Westmoreland County, said that science should be disregarded. A study released in February by the National Academy of Sciences found that bite mark comparison is not reliable.
"Simply put, Kunco's trial was polluted and contaminated with false, misleading and grossly unreliable bite mark evidence, and as a result this court can have no confidence in the jury's decision to convict Kunco," states the appeal written by Innocence Project lawyer Craig M. Cooley.
Kunco had worked as maintenance man at the apartment where his 55-year-old accuser lived. During the trial, prosecutors presented evidence that he broke into her home on Dec. 16, 1990, blindfolded her with her own underwear, shocked her with a frayed electrical cord, raped her, then forced her to perform painful and degrading sexual acts.
The victim was able to identify Kunco by virtue of a recognizable lisp.
Five months after the woman was attacked, an ultraviolet photograph of her back was enlarged and healed bite wounds were compared to a mold of Kunco's teeth. Forensic experts testified at trial that the healed wounds matched Kunco's dental impression.
Defense attorneys never challenged that testimony during the trial, but a subsequent appeal did. That appeal eventually was taken to the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals, where it was rejected in 2003.
Westmoreland County Assistant District Attorney Wayne Gongaware, who tried the case against Kunco in 1992, said Friday that he is confident the right man is in prison for the rape.
"We had two different experts. They independently reviewed the evidence and found it was his bite marks," Gongaware said.
The Innocence Project, a private nonprofit agency based in New York, was created in 1992 and has worked on high-profile cases in which DNA could be used to overturn a conviction.
Kunco has maintained his innocence since his arrest. After the federal appeals court ruling Kunco contacted the Innocence Project, Cooley said on Monday.
In January, Westmoreland County prosecutors agreed to DNA testing of some evidence used against Kunco, including an electrical cord and the victim's girdle. Test results have not been returned.
"We're testing to find some other male DNA that we can hopefully use to exonerate John. If the results are inconclusive, then we will have to find another available avenue of appeal," Cooley said.