On December 18, Pennsylvania dropped all homicide charges against Noel Montalvo, twenty years after he was convicted and sentenced to death in York County. Mr. Montalvo (pictured) pled guilty to one count of tampering with evidence in exchange for release and one year on probation. The Death Penalty Information Center has determined that Mr. Montalvo meets the criteria for inclusion on our exoneration list because the charges that placed him on death row have been dismissed. 

Mr. Montalvo’s brother Milton was convicted and sentenced to death in 2000 for the 1998 murders of his estranged common-law wife, Miriam Ascencio, and her new boyfriend, Nelson Lugo. A neighbor found Ms. Ascencio and Mr. Lugo stabbed to death the morning after the couple had gone out together to a local bar. DNA testing of over 70 items at the scene matched blood and hair to Milton but found no trace of Noel. Another neighbor saw Milton alone at Ms. Ascencio’s door that night and heard him shouting. Nonetheless, prosecutors later tried Noel for the murders and he was sentenced to death in 2003. Only one witness linked Noel to the crime, testifying that he had told her he murdered Ms. Ascencio, but the witness admitted on cross-examination that a detective had threatened her with jail time if she didn’t implicate Noel. 

In 2019, a judge overturned Noel’s conviction and sentence based on his attorney’s ineffectiveness in several respects, including failing to present key mitigation evidence and challenge the trial judge’s error in jury instructions. That decision was upheld on appeal by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2021. Milton also received relief when a court granted a new penalty phase in 2017 based on ineffective assistance of counsel, but he died in 2021 before resentencing. Instead of pursuing a new trial for Noel, the parties eventually reached the plea agreement for his release. Under the agreement, Noel admitted only to leaving the state with his brother on the night of the murders. The physical evidence has been retested multiple times over the years and experts have definitively excluded Noel. 

“That he was awarded a new trial and ultimately had homicide charges dismissed is no surprise,” said Marshall Dayan, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Pennsylvanians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and former attorney for Noel Montalvo. “The shocking reality is that he was convicted in the first place when the Commonwealth had virtually no evidence against him. His 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 maintained his innocence for his entire incarceration, and Milton himself said that his brother was not involved. Interviewed outside of York County Prison after his release, Noel said that the carceral system needed to change because “too many people are really innocent” and “proof has sustained the innocence.” 

Noel Montalvo is the 196th person exonerated, and the 12th in Pennsylvania, of those sentenced to death since 1973. Pennsylvania is now tied with North Carolina and Louisiana for fourth-most exonerations from death row, after Florida (30), Illinois (22), and Texas (16). Noel Montalvo is the fourth person exonerated in 2023 after John Huffington, Jesse Johnson, and Glynn Simmons


Aimee Ambrose, Noel Montalvo exits York County Prison, December 18, 2023; Aimee Ambrose, Once on death row, Noel Montalvo expect­ed to walk free today, York Dispatch, December 18, 2023; Matt Miller, Central Pa. man on death row deserves new tri­al due to judge’s faulty jury instruc­tions: Pa. Supreme Court, Penn Live, January 20, 2021; Commonwealth v. Montalvo (Pa. 2021); Dylan Segelbaum, Judge throws out York County killer’s death sen­tence, York Daily Record, June 112017