Lambert v. Blackwell

Decision Date28 April 1997
Docket NumberCiv. A. No. 96-6244.
Citation962 F.Supp. 1521
PartiesLisa Michelle LAMBERT v. Mrs. Charlotte BLACKWELL, Supt., et al.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Pennsylvania
MEMORANDUM

DALZELL, District Judge.

Lisa Lambert has petitioned this Court for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging, among other things, that she is actually innocent of the first degree murder for which she was convicted in July of 1992, and that she was the victim of wholesale prosecutorial misconduct in connection with the prosecution of her case. As a result of her being raped by a prison guard in the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections system,1 Ms. Lambert has been in the custody of Charlotte Blackwell, the Superintendent of the Edna Mahan Corrections Facility for Women in New Jersey.

After reviewing Ms. Lambert's pro se petition for the writ, we concluded that the interests of justice required that we appoint counsel on her behalf. See 18 U.S.C. § 3006A(a)(2); see also Reese v. Fulcomer, 946 F.2d 247, 263-64 (3d Cir.1991), cert. denied, 503 U.S. 988, 112 S.Ct. 1679, 118 L.Ed.2d 396 (1992). On October 4, 1996, we appointed the firm of Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis, and Christina Rainville, Esq. of that firm, to represent Ms. Lambert on a pro bono basis. We gave counsel three months in which to prepare an amended petition, which they filed on January 3, 1997. In the amended petition, Ms. Lambert also names the District Attorney of Lancaster County and the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania as additional respondents.

After affording both sides discovery,2 we commenced a hearing on the petition on March 31, 1997. After twelve days of testimony, as a result of a breathtaking act of conscience by Hazel Show, mother of victim Laurie Show, we on April 16, 1997 with respondents' consent released Lisa Lambert to the custody of her lawyers, Ms. Rainville and Peter S. Greenberg, Esq.3 After fourteen days of testimony covering 3,225 pages of transcript, we have now concluded that Ms. Lambert has presented an extraordinary — indeed, it appears, unprecedented — case. We therefore hold that the writ should issue, that Lisa Lambert should be immediately released, and that she should not be retried. This Memorandum will constitute our findings of fact and conclusions of law in support of this disposition.

Background

Lisa Lambert was, on July 20, 1992, convicted of the first degree murder of Laurie Show, a sixteen-year-old high school student who lived in East Lampeter Township, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Ms. Show was brutally murdered with a knife to her neck on the morning of December 20, 1991.

Because it will be so important as the benchmark against which to measure the claims of actual innocence and prosecutorial misconduct, we will rehearse the Commonwealth's theory of the case as it unfolded in the bench trial before the Honorable Lawrence F. Stengel of the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas, and which Judge Stengel largely adopted when he convicted Ms. Lambert.4 We therefore begin this rehearsal with Judge Stengel's view of the facts.

Lisa Michelle Lambert was romantically involved with Lawrence Yunkin. During an interlude in their relationship, Mr. Yunkin dated Laurie Show. They apparently dated on one or two occasions during the summer of 1991. The evidence at trial made clear that Ms. Lambert reacted strongly to this development and that she expressed her anger at Laurie Show to a number of her friends. In fact, a plan was developed in the summer of 1991 that included kidnapping, harassing and terrorizing Laurie Show. Apparently, Ms. Lambert was the author of this plan and she enlisted several of her friends to execute the plan. The "kidnapping" did not happen when several of the group warned Laurie Show.

This "bad blood" continued. Ms. Lambert confronted Laurie Show at the East Towne Mall and struck her. According to the victim's mother, Hazel Show, the victim was afraid of Ms. Lambert. It appears that Ms. Lambert was stalking Laurie Show during the summer and into the fall of 1991.

On December 20, 1991, Hazel Show received a call from a person who claimed to be her daughter's guidance counselor. The caller requested a conference with Hazel Show before school the next morning. The following morning Hazel Show left the condominium to keep this "appointment." While she was gone, two persons knocked on the door of the Show condominium and entered when Laurie Show answered. A commotion followed and these two figures then left the second floor condominium, walked across a field, cut through a parking lot by some adjoining condominiums in the same complex and got into an automobile. Hazel Show waited at the Conestoga Valley High School for the guidance counselor and when the guidance counselor did not appear at the time for the appointment, Hazel Show returned by automobile to her condominium. She found her daughter laying on the floor of her bedroom, bleeding profusely from a large slash wound across her neck. Laurie whispered to her mother the words, "Michelle ... Michelle did it." Laurie Show then died in her mother's arms.

Commonwealth v. Lambert, No. 0423-1992, slip op. at 3-4 (Lancaster County (Pa.) Ct. of C.P. July 19, 1994) (Stengel, J.) (hereinafter referred to as "Lambert slip op." or "July 19, 1994 slip op.")5

At the Lambert trial, the Commonwealth presented much testimony regarding the "bad blood" between Lambert and Laurie Show. See, e.g., Lambert slip op. at 5-6 (detailing arguments between Lambert and Laurie Show). The Commonwealth also contended that Ms. Lambert bought rope and two ski hats at the KMart in the East Towne Mall the night before the murders. See Lambert slip op. at 6. The morning of December 20, 1991, the Commonwealth contended that Ms. Lambert took a butcher's knife from her kitchen and had Lawrence Yunkin drive her to pick up Tabitha Buck at home and take the two women to the Show condominium. Yunkin then dropped off Ms. Lambert and Buck who carried the knife and the rope to Laurie Show's condominium. Yunkin, meanwhile, went to the nearby McDonald's restaurant and had breakfast, aware only that Ms. Lambert did not like Laurie Show and that Ms. Lambert and Buck were carrying rope and a butcher's knife.

The Commonwealth and Judge Stengel placed great weight on the testimony of Mr. Richard Kleinhans, a neighbor who lived directly below the Show condominium, whom Judge Stengel described as a "disinterested third party." Lambert slip op. at 15. As Judge Stengel summarized Mr. Kleinhans's testimony:

Mr. Kleinhans ... heard footsteps up the outdoor steps, heard Laurie Show's door open, heard a scream followed by a thud. After several minutes passed, he heard the door slam and heard people descending the steps. He looked out the window and saw two figures of roughly the same height and build with hoods pulled over their heads.

Id. at 15. Judge Stengel found that Mr. Kleinhans's testimony that he would have heard "any commotion or unusual noise from the condominium above his," Lambert slip op. at 9, "completely undermines the story told by Ms. Lambert." Id. at 16.

To hear Ms. Lambert's version, there must have been a great deal of shouting, bumping, swearing, crying, screaming and general commotion in the condominium. This was followed by, according to Ms. Lambert, her "escape" from the mayhem inflicted by Ms. Buck. As part of this "escape," Ms. Lambert related that she went half way down the staircase and sat. Then, supposedly, Mr. Yunkin ascended the steps, swore out loud when Ms. Lambert told him that Ms. Buck was in the condominium and went in after Ms. Buck.

Mr. Kleinhans testified that he heard no such commotion. Nor did Mr. Kleinhans observe three individuals. Nor did Mr. Kleinhans observe anyone the size of Mr. Yunkin. Nor did Mr. Kleinhans hear any screaming, fighting or doors slamming, other than the initial entrance and exit.

Given the court's view of the condominium6 and Mr. Kleinhans's description of the layout of his condominium in relation to the Show condominium, his testimony is very important. By his clear factual statements, the likelihood that such a commotion, as described by Ms. Lambert, took place is extremely slight at best. Mr. Kleinhans testified as to what he heard and as to what he did not hear.7 He offered no opinion and offered no interpretation of the events he related. He was found to be extremely credible by the court sitting as factfinder in this case. His testimony was in direct conflict with Ms. Lambert's version of the story at trial. Her version would have involved a kind of "noiseless mayhem" and this simply is not a credible story. Mr. Kleinhans was directly below, was paying attention to what was going on and remembered very clearly what he heard and what he did not hear. The lack of any commotion, crashing, shouting, stomping, yelling or other related noises renders Ms. Lambert's already incredible story completely incredible.

Id. at 16-18.

By contrast, at trial and before us, Lisa Lambert contended that she was an innocent bystander who watched helplessly as a "prank" spun horribly out of control at the hands of Yunkin and Buck. As she put it in her Amended Petition, and consistent with her testimony before Judge Stengel, Ms. Lambert's summary of what happened is as follows:

Lambert and Tabitha Buck ("Buck") were dropped off near the apartment building in which the victim lived by Lawrence "Butch" Yunkin ("Yunkin"), with whom Lambert was romantically involved. The plan, as Lambert understood it, was for Buck and Lambert to wait for the victim at a bus stop, surprise her, and cut off her hair. In other words, Lambert's intent was to cause the victim embarrassment as part of a teenage prank. After initially waiting at the bus stop with Lambert, Buck said that she was cold and decided to go up to the victim's...

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