A judge has ordered new trials for two men convicted of murdering a woman in 1993 inside her home near Buffalo, New York, but who have always maintained their innocence.
Additional DNA analysis and the fact that the original prosecutors withheld evidence that could've helped the defense means the convictions of Brian Scott Lorenz and James Pugh should be overturned, the judge ruled Wednesday.
However, Erie County state Supreme Court Justice Paul Wojtaszek did not credit a sensational claim made during a reexamination of the case: that the real killer was Richard Matt, a convicted murderer who escaped from an upstate New York prison in 2015 and was fatally shot by a federal agent.
Deborah Meindl, 33-year-old a nursing student and mother of two, was stabbed dozens of times and strangled inside her home in Tonawanda.
Her husband Donald Meindl, who had a $50,000 life insurance policy on his wife and who was carrying on a relationship with a 17-year-old employee at the Taco Bell he managed, was initially a suspect in her murder but was never charged. Donald Meindl died in May.
Authorities began investigating Lorenz and Pugh on the theory that they were burglarizing the Meindls' home and killed Deborah Meindl when they were discovered.
Lorenz and Pugh were charged in the case after Lorenz, then under arrest for another crime in Iowa, confessed to murdering Meindl and implicated Pugh. Lorenz later said it was a false confession.
Lorenz, now 52, and Pugh, 61, were convicted of Meindl's murder although both maintained their innocence. Pugh was paroled in 2019 but Lorenz remains in prison.
The case was reopened in 2018 after defense lawyers convinced a state judge to grant a review of forensic evidence, which found that neither Lorenz's nor Pugh's DNA was at the crime scene, including on a knife used in the attack.
Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn appointed two prosecutors from his office to review the case in 2021. Their surprising conclusion was that Matt, who escaped from the Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora with another convict, was the real killer.
David Sweat, who was recaptured and is back in prison, told authorities that Matt confessed to him that he murdered Deborah Meindl.
In a letter to The New York Times, Sweat claimed that Matt, who was living near the house where the murder occurred, killed Meindl on orders of a police officer, David Bentley, who later helped lead the investigation into her murder.
Bentley, who had a close relationship with Matt, has denied any role in Meindl's murder.
Flynn rejected the findings of his own prosecutors and opposed the motion to vacate the convictions. A spokesperson for Flynn said the district attorney would appeal the decision.
Wojtaszek did not exonerate either Pugh or Lorenz of the killing, and the judge called the allegation that Matt and Bentley conspired to kill Meindl “nothing more than speculation, conjecture, and surmise without any substantiation or corroboration.”
But Wojtaszek said a new trial was warranted based on the DNA evidence and prosecutors' failure to disclose that a witness could not identify a crucial piece of evidence: a commemorative coin that supposedly linked Lorenz to the crime.
Lorenz's attorney praised the judge's decision vacating the convictions.
“Scott Lorenz has gone through a three-decade nightmare in prison for a crime he did not commit,” Ilann Maazel said Thursday. “Though the world gave up on him, he never gave up on himself or his search for justice. Scott just wants to go home, be with his wife, and live in peace.”
Pugh's attorney, Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, said it's “a wonderful new day” for his client, who since his parole has been living with his sister and working as a handyman. “He's no longer a convicted murderer and he can get on with his life,” Margulis-Ohnuma said.