Lancaster County President Judge David Ashworth gave the district attorney’s office 20 days — starting last Friday — to make its case for why some newly discovered autopsy records should remain sealed. “The case concerns the unsolved death of Jonathan Luna, one of the most mysterious and high-profile deaths in modern Lancaster County history,” LNP | LancasterOnline reported last week. “Luna, a federal prosecutor from Baltimore, was found dead around daybreak in a stream by Dry Tavern Road near Denver in December 2003. He was 38.”
Last year, when LNP | LancasterOnline sought the coroner’s records for the Luna case, the county’s top attorney issued a straightforward memo: “The coroner has no records relating to Jonathan Luna.”
Move along, nothing to see here.
But it seems there was.
On Jan. 31 — 16 years after Luna’s death, and months after denying that the county held records in the case — county officials found the coroner’s records they claimed did not exist.
They were in archives housed in the basement of the government building on North Queen Street.
“Newly elected District Attorney Heather Adams quickly moved to ask the courts to seal the records, arguing ... that their release could hinder an ongoing investigation,” LNP | LancasterOnline’s Dan Nephin reported last week.
This newspaper, in an emergency filing, urged the court to keep the records public. But before it had filed its response to the prosecution's motion, Ashworth ordered the case sealed.
There’s little about the Luna case that is clear, save for this: These are public records, as defined by the state’s Right-to-Know Law and Coroner’s Act. And so they should be open to the public.
This was affirmed in a court ruling in LNP | LancasterOnline’s favor last August. Some records may be sealed, according to that ruling, but the Luna records shouldn’t be among them.
Many details of the case long ago were leaked by federal law enforcement sources who, for reasons still unknown, sought to tarnish Luna’s reputation.
In its filing last week, the Lancaster County District Attorney’s Office contended that the investigation into Luna’s death “would be fundamentally impaired in that suspects in the investigation and, ultimately, the perpetrator would be alerted to the details known by the investigative team through the autopsy report.”
To what investigation is the district attorney’s office referring? We’ve seen no indication that any such investigation is taking place. And hasn’t for some time.
Indeed, as former LNP | LancasterOnline investigative reporter Gil Smart noted back in 2013, the Luna inquiry officially remained open, but there’s “never been much of an investigation” — much to the frustration of those who knew Luna, and others who continue to puzzle over the bizarre circumstances of his death.
In December 2003, Luna was working on a plea deal in a drug case. He left his Baltimore office at 11:38 p.m. Dec. 3.
The next morning, the federal prosecutor was found dead in Lancaster County beneath his still-idling Honda Accord in a stream in Brecknock Township.
He’d been stabbed 36 times, but the actual cause of death was ruled drowning. The Lancaster County coroner at the time, Dr. Barry Walp, classified the death as a homicide.
But for some reason — not explained then or since — federal investigators insisted that it was suicide. They insisted that Luna, a married father of two young children, had killed himself with his own penknife.
By, supposedly, stabbing himself three dozen times. Nearly 100 miles away from his office.
According to Smart’s reporting, Walp’s successor as coroner, Dr. G. Gary Kirchner, faced pressure to reclassify Luna’s death from homicide to suicide but refused to do so. Lancaster County Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni told Smart in 2013 that it “remains the official opinion of this office that the findings (of the autopsy report) were most consistent with homicide.”
Seven years on, we ask: What has been served by keeping the coroner’s records secret?
How did it happen that those records, about this extremely high-profile case, were lost for years before being found — thought by Diamantoni to have been transferred about a decade ago to the FBI?
In the interim, has the investigation into Luna’s death advanced? Has there been much of an investigation at all? In the apparent absence of one, we’ve gotten only conspiracy theories, which are a lousy substitute for evidence and truth.
The late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously observed that “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
It seems to us that if any case ever needed the clarity of sunlight, this one is it.
As Tom Murse, executive editor of LNP | LancasterOnline, said: “We believe maintaining public access to these and all coroner records, as ordered by a Lancaster County judge in 2019, is critical to the community's understanding of how a federal prosecutor — a public servant — died. Our coroner at the time — an elected official paid by taxpayers — determined Jonathan Luna was killed. Federal investigators later contradicted him and suggested Mr. Luna committed suicide. Mr. Luna’s family and the public deserve closure in this unsolved case, and if the coroner's records get us one small step closer to the truth, they should be unsealed.”
Murse is absolutely right.
We understand that District Attorney Adams did not oversee the initial investigation. We hope in the next couple of weeks that her office can review the case and determine a way to shed light on this unexplained death.
Locking the coroner’s records away hasn’t gotten us an inch closer to the truth of what happened to a federal prosecutor in his final hours. We shouldn’t fear that truth.