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In perhaps the most closely watched murder case in Pennsylvania history, a federal appeals court yesterday upheld the conviction of Lisa Michelle Lambert, rejecting the findings of a federal judge who previously declared that she was “actually innocent” and set her free. In its 70-page opinion in Lambert v. Blackwell, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sharply criticized U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell’s handling of Lambert’s case, finding that in his decision to set aside Lambert’s conviction for the 1991 murder of Lancaster teen Laurie Show, Dalzell had failed to accord the appropriate level of deference due to the findings of the Pennsylvania state courts. “The writ of habeas corpus . . . empowers a federal court to overturn a state conviction only when it is contrary to federal law or an unreasonable application of law or determination of the facts. Comity and finality . . . mandate considerable deference to the determination of the state fact-finder and appellate courts,” 3rd Circuit Judge Michael Chertoff wrote. “Regrettably, the initial habeas decision here upended these fundamental principles of comity and finality. In concluding that Lambert was actually innocent and that her prosecutors were guilty of horrendous misconduct, Judge Dalzell effectively permitted Lambert to retry the criminal case – with hindsight – in a federal courtroom,” Chertoff wrote in an opinion joined by U.S. Circuit Judges Edward R. Becker and Samuel A. Alito Jr. Chertoff found that Dalzell’s 1997 decision “reversed the traditional approach to reviewing convictions . . . . he effectively drew every inference against the verdict, and accepted Lambert’s view that every discrepancy between her version and the state’s established that the state was acting in bad faith.” In doing so, Chertoff said, Dalzell “treated every dispute in testimony as state perjury, and every minor inconsistency as momentous. The costs of this misguided approach in terms of comity and finality are very substantial.” By contrast, Chertoff found that after Dalzell recused himself, the case was handled properly by the new judge, U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody, who “properly weighed the evidence and applied the law under the principles of federalism and finality.” “We agree with Judge Brody that Lisa Michelle Lambert was not ‘actually innocent,’ and was not the victim of a miscarriage of justice or gross prosecutorial misconduct,” Chertoff wrote. “A careful, dispassionate review of the entire record convincingly demonstrates that Lambert’s trial was fair, constitutionally correct, and well supported by the evidence. Accordingly, there is no reason to disturb the conviction,” Chertoff wrote. After a non-jury trial, Lambert was convicted by then-Lancaster County Common Pleas Judge Lawrence Stengel of the December 1991 murder of Show, a 16-year-old Lancaster high school sophomore. Prosecutors argued that Lambert, now 32, stalked and murdered Show because she thought Show was romantically involved with Lambert’s boyfriend, Lawrence Yunkin. Stengel (who was recently appointed to the federal bench) declined to impose the death penalty prosecutors demanded, but instead sentenced Lambert to life in prison. Yunkin and Lambert’s friend, Tabitha F. Buck, were also convicted. Yunkin pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and was released to a halfway house in January. Buck, 30, is serving life in prison. When Lambert filed a hand-written habeas corpus petition in federal court, Dalzell appointed attorney Christina Rainville, then of Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, to represent her. Rainville amassed a team of Schnader Harrison lawyers who set out to prove that Lambert was framed by police and prosecutors who systematically hid valuable evidence from her original defense lawyer. Dalzell agreed, finding that Lambert’s was “the worst case of prosecutorial misconduct in English-speaking experience,” and that prosecutors and police had “rigged the proceedings in the state trial to such an extent that it was a trial in name only.” In his order, Dalzell set Lambert free and ruled that the Lancaster County prosecutors were not entitled to try her again. Dalzell’s opinion set off a firestorm of controversy as the murder victim’s parents were joined by hundreds of Lancaster County residents who called for the judge’s impeachment. But Lambert enjoyed just 10 months of freedom because the 3rd Circuit reversed Dalzell’s decision on procedural grounds, finding that many of Lambert’s claims had never been presented to the Pennsylvania courts. Back in the Pennsylvania courts, Lambert’s conviction was upheld after lengthy hearings before Stengel who issued a 320-page opinion that blasted Dalzell’s findings and rejected every one of Lambert’s claims. The Pennsylvania Superior Court later upheld the conviction, finding that Stengel “demonstrated remarkable patience and thoroughness throughout the proceedings” in Lambert’s case and that he had “allowed her to reiterate her claims and explore every avenue for relief.” When Lambert returned to federal court, her case was again assigned to Dalzell, who once again declared that Lambert was “actually innocent” and that her conviction resulted from a trial that was tainted by prosecutorial and police misconduct. Dalzell said he was reinstating his original findings in the case because the Pennsylvania courts never had jurisdiction to hear Lambert’s most recent round of appeals since the Pennsylvania Superior Court held that Lambert’s petition under the Pennsylvania Post Conviction Relief Act was filed too late. “Since the state courts did not have jurisdiction to hear the case, they could not properly reach the merits, and therefore their findings are void and we need not accord them any deference,” Dalzell wrote. Since the state courts lacked jurisdiction, Dalzell found that “settled Pennsylvania law holds their factual findings and legal conclusions are a nullity.” As a result, Dalzell said, “there is no legitimate interest to which we must defer under the AEDPA [Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act] or in the more generalized name of judge-made comity.” But soon after, prosecutors filed a petition with the 3rd Circuit asking that Dalzell be taken off the case. The 3rd Circuit issued a stay in which it instructed Dalzell to take no further action in Lambert’s case until it had ruled on the disqualification motion. But the appellate court never ruled on the petition because Dalzell himself decided to step down. In an eight-page opinion handed down in January 2002, Dalzell took a few parting shots at his accusers in the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. “For this judge to continue to preside in this case will merely permit the commonwealth to continue to change the subject from what really is at issue here,” Dalzell wrote. “What really is at issue here is a wholesale assault by the state against the rights of one citizen.” Lambert’s case was then assigned to Brody, who ruled last year that none of Stengel’s rulings were erroneous and that Lambert “is not, and never will be, innocent of this crime.” On appeal, Lambert’s lawyers – Peter S. Greenberg, Nancy Winkelman, Jonathan S. Liss and Han Nguyen of Schnader Harrison – urged the 3rd Circuit to reinstate Dalzell’s decision. (Rainville has left Schnader Harrison and now works at the Securities and Exchange Commission.) In their brief, Lambert’s lawyers argued that they had mustered significant proof of perjured testimony and prosecutorial misconduct, including evidence that Lambert’s original lawyer was never informed of the existence of an eye-witness whose testimony would have supported Lambert’s story. Now the 3rd Circuit has ruled that Lambert fell short of proving all but two of her claims. And the two minor errors she proved, the court said, were not enough to show that she was not given a fair trial. “After thoroughly examining Lambert’s claims, we find no merit in them,” Chertoff wrote. “To be sure, the Commonwealth should have turned over [the eye-witness's] statement to the defense prior to trial and we do not endorse the prosecution’s pretrial contact with Lambert’s expert. But neither flaw warrants habeas relief,” Chertoff wrote. Attorney General Jerry Pappert issued a statement yesterday that said he was pleased with the decision and the judges’ reasoning. “The appeals court examined the nearly 200 claims of prosecutorial misconduct alleged by Lambert’s attorneys and determined that those allegations were without merit. I remain committed to ensuring that Lambert’s life sentence for the brutal murder of Laurie Show is enforced,” Pappert said. Greenberg declined to comment on the ruling. (Copies of the 70-page opinion in Lambert v. Blackwell , PICS No. 04-1571, are available from The Legal Intelligencer . Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information. Some cases are not available until 1 p.m.)

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