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Former Pennsylvania death row inmate freed after prosecutors drop charges before start of retrial

  • The Associated Press


A man formerly on death row has been released from prison following dismissal of murder charges in a double slaying a quarter-century ago that he blamed on his brother, who died in prison while appealing his own death sentence in the case.

Noel Montalvo, who turned 59 Tuesday, was freed Monday night after York County prosecutors dismissed charges of first-degree murder, conspiracy and burglary shortly before a retrial was to begin. He pleaded guilty to an evidence tampering charge for which the judge sentenced him to a year of probation.

Noel Montalvo was greeted by friends and supporters as he walked out of York County Prison a free man for the first time since 2002. He said he was looking forward to going back home and seeing his family, children and grandchildren, the York Dispatch reported.

“We’re very happy with the outcome of the case,” defense attorney Rick Robinson said.

Marshall Dayan, who chairs the board of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and who worked on a federal case for Montalvo for many years, said Montalvo “steadfastly maintained his innocence.” He said in a statement that the original conviction “evidences the arbitrariness, if not the discrimination, inherent in our criminal legal system, and in particular in our capital criminal legal system.”

Noel Montalvo and his older brother, Milton Montalvo, were convicted of murder in the April 1998 killings of Milton’s ex-girlfriend, 44-year-old Miriam Asencio, and 37-year-old Manual Ramirez Santana. A judge ordered a new trial for Noel Montalvo in 2019, citing a missing word in jury instructions during his 2003 trial.

District Attorney David Sunday Jr. said in a statement Tuesday that the case against Milton Montalvo included DNA evidence, but the case against Noel Montalvo lacked such evidence and primarily relied on witness testimony that was “extensively and thoroughly attacked” during trial and “continued to diminish over time.”

Although reliable witness testimony supported the tampering charges, “no reliable evidence existed at this point to actually tie Noel Montalvo to participating in the homicides with his brother,” Sunday said. An “exhaustive” review of evidence and new DNA tests turned up no evidence of his DNA at the crime scene, he said.

“Given the lack of any forensic evidence tying Noel Montalvo to the murders and the lack of reliable witnesses concerning the homicide charges, a plea to tampering was the only fair, just, and ethical result for this case,” Sunday said.

A judge in 2017 threw out the death penalty against Milton Montalvo and ordered a new sentencing hearing but denied a defense bid for a new trial. Prosecutors said he died in prison while awaiting the new sentencing hearing in which they were still seeking the death penalty, and Sunday noted that “further forensic testing greatly strengthened the basis for Milton Montalvo’s murder convictions.”

“The person who did commit the murders has been … my oldest brother, Milton Noel Montalvo,” Noel Montalvo told a judge during a hearing in December 2021, the York Dispatch reported.

Sunday offered condolences to the families of the victims for the loss he blamed on “Milton Montalvo’s utter depraved cruelty.” He said officials “must never forget the toll that our criminal justice system can take on victims of crime, and we need to make sure that we utilize every resource possible to ensure that the truth is revealed, and justice is pursued.”

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