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Scott Godesky

Other Allegheny County Exonerations
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It was just after midnight on February 29, 1996, when Rani Huff went looking for her boyfriend, Brian Mirenna, who was 21 and a drug dealer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She had been paging him, and he hadn’t been answering. Huff had spoken to Mirenna a few hours earlier, when he said he was at a party at David Lehrman’s house. Lehrman was also a drug dealer and a close friend, although he would say later that his relationship with Mirenna had become strained.

Huff said that when she got to Lehrman’s house, there were sheets over the front window, but she could make out people scurrying around inside. She said nobody let her in, but Lehrman told her through the door that Mirenna wasn’t there, that he had gone to steal a car.

During the next few weeks, after Huff reported Mirenna missing, police interviewed Lehrman several times. They also interviewed Todd Erfort, who was also at the party. He was 18 and looked up to Lehrman like a big brother. In one of those early interviews, Erfort said he had heard rumors that Mirenna had been killed, but thought that he had maybe just left town.

The investigation stalled, but on April 22, 1996, a hiker and his dog at Moraine State Park, about an hour north of Pittsburgh, stumbled across the partial remains of Mirenna, including his severed head. Police again interviewed Erfort, and on April 27, he said that Mirenna had been killed at the house during a robbery. Lehrman had shot him in the foot with a shotgun, and then 24-year-old Scott Godesky had shot him in the head with a pistol. Erfort led police to a small cemetery a few miles from Lehrman’s house in Pittsburgh’s Carrick neighborhood, where Mirenna’s torso was recovered from a shallow grave.

Lehrman and Godesky were arrested on April 30. They largely agreed on what had happened after Mirenna was shot to death: Lehrman, Erfort, and Godesky had first tried to bury the body at the cemetery, but the ground was too hard. They returned the next day to retrieve the body, which was then dismembered with a hacksaw. They were finally able to dig a small hole at the cemetery for the torso. The rest was put in garbage bags, and Godesky and Lehrman took the bags to the state park.

Where their stories differed was in how Mirenna was killed. Lehrman’s account largely tracked with Erfort’s, that Godesky had fired the pistol shots that killed Mirenna. Godesky said that wasn’t what happened. He told investigators that Lehrman had asked him for help in playing a prank on Mirenna by pretending to rob him. Godesky held a .357 pistol and Lehrman held a shotgun. But Mirenna didn’t get the joke. Lehrman fired the shotgun, and Mirenna moved to a couch and began screaming and pulling money out of his pocket. At some point, Godesky said, Lehrman tried to pull the pistol out of Godesky’s hand and the gun went off and Mirenna went over sideways on the couch. Lehrman now had the pistol entirely in his possession, Godesky said, and he shot Mirenna again, this time in the head at close range. Later, Lehrman gave Godesky $150 and used most of the rest of the $1,500 taken from Mirenna to replace the bloody carpet in his house.

Godesky was charged with first-degree murder, robbery, criminal conspiracy, and abuse of a corpse. Lehrman was charged with second-degree murder, robbery, criminal conspiracy, and abuse of a corpse. Erfort was not charged, and he would be the prosecution’s key witness at both trials.

Godesky’s trial in the Court of Common Pleas in Allegheny County began in January 1997. Erfort testified that the shooting was part of a robbery, and he described both the killing and the bloody aftermath. A critical part of Erfort’s testimony involved the moment when he said Godesky shot Mirenna. He testified that Godesky fired two shots quickly at Mirenna, both from the same distance.

But the forensic evidence appeared to tell a different story. Separate from the shotgun wound in the foot, Mirenna had three bullet wounds. One, a through wound, was on the left wrist. One was in the left cheek, with a bullet lodged in the neck. And there was the fatal wound in his temple. The state’s forensic pathologist, Dr. Leon Rozin, testified that only the temple wound had soot residue, which indicated the weapon was very close to the skin when fired.

Although Erfort testified that there were only two shots fired from the pistol, the prosecutor used the medical examiner’s testimony about three wounds in his closing arguments to imply that Godesky had shot Mirenna three times, which showed the intent required to support a conviction for first-degree murder.

Godesky testified in his own defense. He denied that he had intentionally shot Mirenna. He said he didn’t even know the gun was loaded and that the shooting had only happened because Lehrman had tried to take the weapon from his hand. He testified that he had helped dispose of the body but that Lehrman alone had dismembered it. He also admitted to taking some money afterwards because he was scared.

Godesky was convicted on January 31, 1997 of all charges and sentenced to life without parole.

Lehrman’s trial was several months later, and Erfort was again the state’s key witness. Lehrman testified in his own defense, but his story had changed. Although in this new version, Godesky still shot Mirenna with the pistol, Lehrman now said that Erfort had shot Mirenna with the shotgun. Lehrman was convicted on April 25, 1997, and also sentenced to life in prison.

Godesky’s direct appeal argued that the prosecutor had made an improper argument in pushing for a conviction of first-degree murder, because the evidence didn’t support three pistol shots. His appeal was denied in late 1998.

His first post-conviction appeal asserted ineffective assistance of counsel, claiming that his attorney should have objected when the prosecutor asked jurors during his closing argument what Lehrman would have to say about the shooting. That appeal was rejected in 2002.

Godesky then turned to the federal courts, filing a pro se petition for a writ of habeas corpus in November 2003. But then he asked to withdraw the petition to pursue further claims under Pennsylvania’s post-conviction appellate process. This was based on newly discovered evidence, specifically statements from a man named Jason Davis, who was friends with Lehrman and Erfort. Davis had come forward and said that Erfort had confided in him that Lehrman and Erfort had tried – unsuccessfully, it turned out – to cook up a plan to pin the murder on Godesky. That appeal was rejected in 2004.

In late 2005, Godesky, still acting pro se, reinstated his writ petition. His new evidence this time was an affidavit from David Newman, another young man from the neighborhood, who said that Lehrman had bragged to him in March 1996 that he had killed Mirenna.

The petition was denied in January 2007, and Godesky filed a request to appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The next year, that request was granted, and a federal public defender was appointed to represent Godesky. But the scope of the appeal was limited to a question of timeliness and also whether the prosecutor made an improper argument.

While the appeal was moving forward, Godesky received a letter dated July 29, 2008, from Lehrman. In the letter, Lehrman described what he said had happened at the party and how he and Erfort had conspired to pin the murder on Godesky.

He wrote: “I am ashamed and disgusted with myself for not coming forth years ago. I have no excuses, what I did was cowardly and selfish. I can only say that at 21 years old and faced with a life sentence I was willing to do anything with no regards for anyone eles (sic).”

Lehrman said that he and Mirenna had had a falling out, and that it was his plan all along to rob Mirenna. But he told Godesky it was a prank. “I then handed Scott my .357 and told him that since he just got out of prison the prank would look more believable.” Mirenna didn’t respond as Lehrman expected, and he fired the shotgun in frustration. Godesky just stood there. Lehrman said that he asked for the gun, but Godesky wouldn’t give it to him, so he grabbed it and the first shot went off. Then, Lehrman said, he shot Mirenna again.

After the men disposed of the body, Lehrman wrote, “Todd and I still hung out but Scott pretty much stayed away. Todd and I were worried that Scott might tell if Brian was found so we decided to blame Scott if that happen (sic) … We figured it would be easy to blame Scott since he was in prison and out on parole.”

Godesky then amended his federal petition and asked to stay the proceedings to pursue post-conviction claims in Pennsylvania’s courts. Two days of evidentiary hearings were held on October 26 and 27, 2010. Lehrman, Davis, and Newman testified. In addition, Godesky continued to assert prosecutorial misconduct. His attorneys had examined transcripts from Lehrman’s trial and noticed that the prosecutor had this time said there were only two shots from the pistol. Godesky’s request for relief in state court was denied on January 25, 2011. Godesky’s appeal was rejected two years later, and he again turned to the federal courts.

Godesky’s amended writ for a petition of habeas corpus was filed in U.S. District Court on January 28, 2015. In addition to asserting that Erfort had committed perjury and the prosecutor had committed misconduct, the petition also said the state judge who denied Godesky’s motion in 2011 should have recused himself, because he was a former public appellate defender at the time that Godesky claimed ineffective assistance by that office. In allowing these claims to move forward, U.S. Magistrate Judge Susan Baxter said the state judge should have recused himself.

Baxter held an evidentiary hearing on January 4, 2019. Lehrman was the principal witness. He said he had become angry at Mirenna after a series of slights and incidents, and that the robbery was a means of exacting some revenge.

He was asked by Federal Public Defender Elisa Long: “When you took the gun from Mr. Godesky and were fairly close to Mr. Mirenna, was it your intent, then, to pull the trigger?”

Lehrman answered: “Yes. Yeah. I was panicked and scared, because he was yelling. And all I wanted him to do was just to be quiet.”

His testimony was sharply questioned by Ronald Wabby, with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office. He noted that Lehrman had given at least four different versions of the events of that night and that he had appealed his conviction in both state and federal courts, all along asserting his innocence. Lehrman said he was trying to make amends for his lies. In addition, Wabby was able to show that Lehrman suffered from mental-health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder.

Davis also testified about his conversation with Erfort in which Erfort told him that the plan to push the murder onto Godesky had backfired and ended in Lehrman’s conviction. Wabby noted that Davis had only come forward in 2003, several years after he and Godesky were briefly cellmates in the same prison.

Godesky’s final witness was Dr. David Fowler, Maryland’s chief medical examiner. He said there were only two pistol shots that struck Mirenna. The first went through Mirenna’s left wrist, likely when his hand was raised in a defensive position. The bullet struck the ulna bone, lost energy and then continued traveling through Mirenna’s cheek and came to a rest beneath his neck. The second bullet went through his head. Fowler said that based on the wound shapes and the soot left on Mirenna’s temple, it was his opinion that the gun was fired first from a few feet away and then from very close range. That was in conflict with Erfort’s testimony, when he said that Godesky had fired two shots in quick succession, without advancing on Mirenna.

Baxter granted Godesky’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus on April 26, 2019, giving the state 120 days to retry Godesky. She said Godesky had produced “credible evidence” that “supports a finding that Erfort and Lehrman conspired to place false blame of Mirenna’s murder onto Godesky, and that Erfort lied when he testified that Godesky deliberately shot and killed Mirenna during a robbery.”

Godesky’s retrial began on August 7, 2019. Erfort again testified for the prosecution, repeating his testimony from 22 years earlier. He denied that he and Lehrman ever devised a plan to blame Godesky for the shooting. Lehrman testified for the defense. Prosecutors attacked his credibility, and his changing accounts of that night. They also asserted that Godesky, on parole at the time, was the more logical shooter. But Lehrman held firm. “I didn’t take just one life,” he said. “I took two lives. I'm sorry. I realized what I did was wrong, and I wanted to fix it.”

After only three hours of deliberation, Godesky was acquitted by a jury on robbery, conspiracy, and murder charges on August 19, 2019. He was convicted of a single count of abuse of a corpse and was sentenced to time served. When the verdict was read, Godesky hugged Aaron Sontz, his public defender.

The conviction for abuse of a corpse triggered a parole violation based on Godesky’s earlier theft conviction. After the not-guilty verdict on the other charges, the Pennsylvania Board of Probation and Parole asked that Godesky be returned to prison for that violation. His attorneys filed an emergency petition for relief. They argued that his time in prison more than compensated for any punishment warranted by his alleged parole violation. Judge Anthony Mariani agreed. He said, “There's no more freedom of his left to take. Where there is no time left, I would find this would be a deprivation of freedom without due process of law.”

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 9/3/2019
State:Pennsylvania
County:Allegheny
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Conspiracy, Other
Reported Crime Date:1996
Convicted:1997
Exonerated:2019
Sentence:Life without parole
Race:White
Sex:Male
Age at the date of reported crime:24
Contributing Factors:False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No