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Judge Orders New Trials for 2 Men Convicted in Grisly ’93 Murder

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An Erie County, N.Y., judge on Wednesday set aside the convictions of two men who, despite their protests of innocence, were found guilty in the grisly 1993 murder of a young mother outside Buffalo.

The ruling, by Justice Paul B. Wojtaszek of State Supreme Court, came after a lengthy re-examination of the case prompted by inconsistencies in the original prosecution, cited by lawyers for the two men, and by an explosive claim about another possible suspect: Richard Matt, one of two escapees in a famous New York jailbreak.

Justice Wojtaszek ordered that the two men, Brian Scott Lorenz and James Pugh, be granted new trials in the slaying of the young mother, Deborah Meindl, who was killed in her home in Tonawanda, N.Y.

The judge rejected the men’s assertions of innocence. But he ruled that new trials were warranted because of new evidence, and because the original prosecutors had violated rules governing the sharing of evidence.

Zachary Margulis-Ohnuma, a lawyer for Mr. Pugh, said that it was “a wonderful day” for his client.

“Jimmy can finally get on with his life without the weight of a false conviction hanging over his head,” he said of Mr. Pugh, adding, “His story should inspire others to keep fighting for justice and strike fear in the hearts of corrupt police and prosecutors who think they can get away with framing innocent people.”

For years, Mr. Lorenz, 52, and Mr. Pugh, 61, had sought to overturn their convictions, noting a lack of forensic evidence linking them to the crime. Their lawyers and a pair of veteran Erie County prosecutors had also suggested that the actual killer was Mr. Matt, whose 2015 escape from a maximum-security prison in Dannemora, N.Y., set off a nationwide manhunt that ended when he was fatally shot.

That claim was advanced by David Sweat, who escaped with Mr. Matt and was recaptured alive.

In letter to The New York Times, Mr. Sweat also made an even more sensational claim: that Mr. Matt, who was living near the house where the murder occurred, had killed Ms. Meindl on orders of a local police officer, David Bentley, who later helped lead the investigation into her murder.

Mr. Sweat said Mr. Bentley had been worried about Ms. Meindl telling the authorities about illegal activities in which he and Mr. Matt were involved.

“The cop said she had to go,” Mr. Sweat wrote to The Times, “because she was going to rat them out.”

The former detective has vehemently denied any involvement in the Meindl killing. “It’s totally, absolutely, unequivocally insane,” he said. He has also denied that he had an affair with Ms. Meindl, which has been suggested by the victim’s husband, Donald, and others.

In his decision, Judge Wojtaszek also cast doubt on Mr. Sweat’s claims, calling them “patently incredible” and “totally unworthy of belief.” But he said that advances in DNA testing, which had excluded both men from various items found at the crime scene, warranted setting aside the convictions.

The decision marks the end of another chapter in the long and lurid saga surrounding Ms. Meindl’s murder.

In a savage attack, Ms. Meindl, a nursing student with two young daughters, was repeatedly stabbed and strangled to death with a man’s necktie on a snowy afternoon in February 1993.

Initially, suspicion fell on Donald Meindl who had a $50,000 life insurance policy on his wife and was having an affair with a 17-year-old girl at the time. He had also spoken with an associate about murdering his wife, though he insisted such conversations were in jest. (Mr. Meindl, who attended the hearing in Buffalo in late 2021 and early 2022, died in May.)

Soon after the murder, however, the investigation — spearheaded by Mr. Bentley — pivoted to Mr. Lorenz and Mr. Pugh, two low-level thieves with drug habits who authorities posited had aimed to rob the Meindl house and who killed Ms. Meindl when they were discovered.

Under arrest for another crime in Iowa, Mr. Lorenz confessed to the murder and implicated Mr. Pugh, which he later said was a false confession he made because he believed it would be easy to prove his innocence.

Mr. Pugh had always maintained that he had not known Ms. Meindl and had nothing to do with the crime.

Despite a dearth of physical evidence, prosecutors used a series of statements from acquaintances of the two men to secure a quick conviction. Both were sentenced to life in prison.

The case likely would have been forgotten if not for Mr. Pugh and Mr. Lorenz’s repeated attempts to reopen the investigation amid recantations by some of the prosecution’s witnesses, including some who said Mr. Bentley had coerced statements or threatened them.

In 2018, the two men’s efforts at exoneration gained strength after New York City defense lawyers representing Mr. Lorenz and Mr. Pugh convinced a state judge to grant a review of forensic evidence, which found that neither man’s DNA was at the crime scene. DNA testing also did not turn up Mr. Matt’s DNA, but did find evidence of another unknown individual on a variety of items, including a knife used in the attack, the necktie, and on Ms. Meindl’s bloodied clothes.

Pressed to vacate the convictions, the Erie County district attorney, John J. Flynn, agreed to a review by two prosecutors from his office in 2021.

Those prosecutors came to a staggering conclusion: Mr. Matt was the likely killer.

The allegation was made even more intriguing by the close relationship between Mr. Bentley and Mr. Matt, which had been likened to that of a father and son.

“I felt bad for him,” Mr. Bentley said in an interview in 2021. “You could almost say I loved the kid.”

But Mr. Flynn rejected his own prosecutors’ findings, demoting one of them and reassigning the other. He also vigorously opposed the motion to vacate the convictions of Mr. Pugh and Mr. Lorenz.

Judge Wojtaszek also seemed skeptical of the two prosecutors’ findings, calling it “nothing more than speculation, conjecture and surmise without any substantiation or corroboration.” But he did chide the initial prosecution for not turning over critical evidence, including a statement from a prosecution witness that he could not identify a commemorative coin that was found in Mr. Lorenz’s possession, seemingly linking him to the murder.

Mr. Flynn, a Democrat who currently serves as president of the state district attorney association, did not immediately return a request for comment.

But Mr. Lorenz’s attorney, Ilann M. Maazel, said that he hoped his client would be released from state prison as soon as possible.

“Scott is a broken man,” Mr. Maazel said. “More than anything, he just wants to go home to his wife and live in peace.”

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