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, 61, 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.”
Mr. Lorenz and Mr. Pugh had sought to overturn their convictions, noting a lack of forensic evidence linking them to the crime. They 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 a 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.