Justice System Works In Case of Bucks County Hunter’s Death

Those appalled by Casey Anthony circus might find satisfaction with local trial outcome

Three recent high-profile criminal cases show how the justice system is uneven and unpredictable. The acquittal of Casey Anthony, the mom accused of killing her daughter, left many people shocked and outraged. The collapse of the rape case against former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn is more murky, and it’s difficult to judge what really happened. Then there is the case of David Manilla, the Montco attorney who shot and killed a Bucks County deer hunter.

At least in this case justice prevailed, thanks to the fearless prosecution by the Bucks County District Attorney and the clear-eyed logic of a judge who was rightly outraged by Manilla’s actions and unmoved by his political connections. Unfortunately, it took deer hunter Barry Groh’s death to stop Manilla from acting as if he is above the law. Groh was dragging a deer he shot through the woods near a stream when Manilla shot him in the heart with a high-powered rifle from about 88 yards away. Prosecutors believe Groh had removed his orange hunting vest at the time but was still wearing an orange hat. Manilla says he thought Groh was a deer.

At first, it appeared Manilla, who has had previous run-ins with the law, would skate away with another wrist slap. But last week Bucks County Judge Albert J. Cepparulo put the case in its proper context and sentenced Manilla to 10 to 25 years in prison.

The involuntary manslaughter charge that Manilla pleaded guilty to comes with a maximum penalty of only 2½ to 5 years. But the judge tacked on another 5 to 10 years for illegally possessing the high-powered rifle used to kill Groh, and another 2½ to 10 years for a shotgun he had with him the day of the shooting. The judge ordered the sentences to be served one after another rather than concurrently, which often happens.

“I think you should consider yourself lucky,” Judge Cepparulo told Manilla. “This case was as close to a murder case as I’ve seen.”

Not to mention the attempted cover-up in an effort to avoid responsibility. This is the part that adds insult to a senseless killing.

First some background: Manilla should never have been holding a gun last November. He had a felony conviction stemming from a 1985 incident in which he cracked a man’s skull with a weightlifting bar and bit his ear outside a Norristown gym. Manilla only received four months for the assault, but as a felon he was unable to possess most firearms.

Yet he continued to hunt. In 1993, he was cited for careless shooting in an incident that left a pheasant hunter with birdshot in his neck. In 2009, Manilla was caught shoplifting and was allowed to enter a pre-adjudication program normally used for first-time offenders.

Why did Manilla receive such kid-glove treatment? Was it because he was a lawyer and had access to good defense attorneys? Perhaps. It probably didn’t hurt that his uncle is former Montgomery County District Attorney Michael D. Marino, who also served as a county commissioner.

In fact, Marino represented his nephew in the 1985 assault case, so he knew Manilla wasn’t allowed to own a gun. Yet, there was Uncle Mike hunting with Manilla when he shot Groh.

And how did the two attorneys who swore to uphold the law respond to the killing?

Prosecutors say Manilla hid his high-powered rifle, which was illegal to use in such a densely populated area, and searched for the spent shell casing. After 30 minutes, he finally called 911.

“We found someone in the water … with a hunting accident,” Manilla told the 911 dispatcher. “They look like they’ve already passed.”

When the rescue workers arrived, no one mentioned Groh had been shot. Medical workers speculated Groh, 52, suffered a heart attack. Manilla, Marino and a third man in their hunting party then slithered off without answering questions before a deputy coroner discovered a bullet wound.

The next day Manilla contacted a handyman and had him move dozens of guns and a bag of ammunition from his Montgomery County home to a horse trailer parked at his girlfriend’s home. Manilla later deeded five properties he owned to his mother and sister. Attorneys for Groh’s family said the move was an attempt to shield assets from a wrongful death claim they filed against Manilla.

At his sentencing, Manilla apologized to Groh’s widow and two sons and said he was “irresponsible” and “should not have been hunting at all.”

But his actions leading up to and after the shooting, paint a picture of an arrogant dirtbag trying to cover up a killing and dodge responsibility. Outside the courtroom, Groh’s widow, Theresa, said it best: “I am happy to see him get hauled off in handcuffs. This was justice.”

Paul Davies spent 25 years in the newspaper business, including stops at the Daily News, the Inquirer and the Wall Street Journal. He can be reached at davies2226@yahoo.com.