Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Man released after 34 years of life sentence

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Times-Tribune archives Eugene McGuire, 17, of Falls, is escorted by deputy sheriffs Bob Truesdale, left, and Sidney Fall to a hearing in July 1977 about the killing of a Lake Winola bartender.
After 34 years in state prison for his role in the 1977 murder of a Lake Winola bartender, Eugene McGuire walked out of a Wyoming County courtroom a free man on Tuesday.

A tearful Mr. McGuire, 51, apologized "for my actions that allowed another to take a life of a human being - especially the community, friends and family who had to suffer the impact and pain of my actions."

Eugene McGuire was 17 on the night of June 17, 1977, drinking and playing cards with his 19-year-old stepbrother, Sidney Coolbaugh, and 24-year-old cousin, Robert Lobman, when the three opted to go to a Lake Winola bar, the Marine Tavern Inn.

After a few drinks, Mr. Lobman informed the other two he planned to rob the bar, according to court documents. Out of fear that Isabelle Nagy, the 60-year-old bartender, might recognize Mr. McGuire and Mr. Coolbaugh as "local boys," Mr. Lobman ushered them outside and told them to remain as lookouts.

Mr. Lobman then went back into the bar alone.

After hearing a "bang and a crash," the younger boys entered the bar and witnessed the murder of Mrs. Nagy.

Mr. McGuire then fled to New Jersey with Mr. Lobman. He returned a few days later and surrendered to authorities.

In exchange for testimony about Mr. Lobman, the two teens were convinced to plead guilty to second-degree murder, which carried a mandatory sentence of life without parole.

The plea violated Mr. McGuire's constitutional rights, but that would not become clear for another 32 years. A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Graham v. Florida, held that the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole for a nonhomicide crime.

Within 60 days of the Supreme Court decision, Mr. McGuire on his own filed a post-conviction relief petition with the Wyoming County Court of Common Pleas. The county appointed Scranton attorney Robert Buttner to represent Mr. McGuire, who sought relief on the grounds of ineffective counsel, and because the guilty plea was unlawfully induced.

Mr. Buttner noted to President Judge Russell Shurtleff that on one side of the courtroom were about 20 family members and friends of Mr. McGuire, and on the other were about 15 people he met through the years while incarcerated at State Correctional Institution - Rockview near State College.

"Think about never having left prison over more than 30 years, and have this kind of support network," he said. "That's important, and why I think he should be released, soon, despite having been associated with this atrocious act."

Mr. Buttner called Mr. McGuire a model defendant to represent, and said that if released, his client has a job waiting for him in Texas working with a Christian ministry. He highlighted Mr. McGuire's record as an exemplary inmate, his finishing high school, speaking to high school and college students and having been employed through the years as a hospital clerk, commissary clerk, employment office clerk, food clerk and chapel clerk.
Wyoming County Assistant District Attorney Gerald Idec reinforced the brief he filed in December, noting that Mr. McGuire had no prior criminal record, did not kill Mrs. Nagy, did not conspire to kill her, did not intend that she be killed and was not inside the tavern when his cousin killed her.

Mr. Idec added that Mr. McGuire turned himself in, made a complete statement to police and cooperated in the prosecution of his cousin. He also underscored that Mr. McGuire's counsel in 1977-78 was ineffective.

The assistant district attorney said Mrs. Nagy did not have children, but he had spoken with two nephews, and they believed Mr. McGuire had been incarcerated long enough. Mr. Idec said Charles Kumpas told him that his mother, the last surviving sibling of Mrs. Nagy, had been contacted by then-Gov. Ed Rendell's office for an earlier, unsuccessful bid to win Mr. McGuire's freedom. She did not object to commutation of his sentence.

Judge Shurtleff, who vacated Mr. McGuire's life sentence on Feb. 10, said Tuesday the 34 years, 9 months and 15 days already served were enough, and ordered that Mr. McGuire "be released from confinement effective this date."

Mr. McGuire broke out in tears, and applause filled the courtroom. He thanked "all of the people who invested in me over the years. The corrections officers and counselors had a big impact on my life ...

"I want to say thank you very much to this court for making this day possible."
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