Han Tak Lee v. Houtzdale SCI, No. 14–3876.

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
Writing for the CourtAMBRO, Circuit Judge.
Citation798 F.3d 159
PartiesHAN TAK LEE v. Superintendent HOUTZDALE SCI; District Attorney Monroe County; Attorney General Pennsylvania Superintendent Houtzdale SCI; District Attorney Monroe County, Appellants.
Docket NumberNo. 14–3876.
Decision Date19 August 2015

798 F.3d 159

HAN TAK LEE
v.
Superintendent HOUTZDALE SCI; District Attorney Monroe County; Attorney General Pennsylvania Superintendent Houtzdale SCI; District Attorney Monroe County, Appellants.

No. 14–3876.

United States Court of Appeals, Third Circuit.

Argued June 18, 2015.
Filed: Aug. 19, 2015.


798 F.3d 160

Mark S. Matthews, Esq., Matthew J. Bernal, Esq., (Argued), Monroe County District Attorney's Office, Monroe County Courthouse, Stroudsburg, PA, for Appellants.

798 F.3d 161

Peter Goldberger, Esq., (Argued), Pamela A. Wilk, Esq., Ardmore, PA, for Appellee.

Before: AMBRO, FUENTES, and GREENBERG, Circuit Judges.

OPINION

AMBRO, Circuit Judge.

Appellee Han Tak Lee was convicted of murdering his daughter based primarily on scientific evidence that, as the Commonwealth now concedes, is discredited by subsequent scientific developments. Lee thus filed a § 2254 habeas petition claiming his conviction violated due process. The District Court granted habeas relief, and we affirm.

I. Background1

Mr. Lee's daughter, Ji Yun Lee, suffered from severe mental illness throughout her life, experiencing both suicidal and homicidal ideation. She lived with her family in New York during the summer of 1989. In the early morning of July 28, police officers found Lee retrieving personal items from the street that his daughter had thrown out the window. The officers entered the house and found Ji Yun in a manic state, arguing with family members who were urging her to take her medications. The officers observed no evidence of violence against her.

At the suggestion of his pastor, Lee took his daughter the same day to Camp Hebron, a religious retreat in Monroe County, Pennsylvania. Her erratic behavior continued. Soon after arriving, Ji Yun went for a walk and returned several hours later soaking wet, having jumped into a body of water. Later that day, she became agitated and had to be physically restrained. A few hours after midnight, a fire began in the Lees' cabin. Han Tak Lee escaped, but his daughter died.

The Commonwealth charged Lee with arson and murder. During an eight-day trial, it relied heavily on fire-science and gas-chromatography evidence to argue that Lee intentionally set the fire to kill his daughter. The defense countered that she set the fire as a suicidal act. Lee was convicted on both charges and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

On direct appeal, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania remanded for an evidentiary hearing on ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims. During that hearing, the Court also received evidence about developments in the field of fire science that, according to a prior panel of our Court, “provided ample reason to question the reliability of the arson investigation.” Lee v. Glunt, 667 F.3d 397, 401 (3d Cir.2012). The trial court nonetheless denied Lee's claims, the Superior Court affirmed, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied appeal.

In 1995 Lee filed a pro se post-conviction petition in state court. The Commonwealth did not comply with the court's order to respond, and the petition remained pending until 2001 when the attorney who is now representing Lee filed leave to amend the petition. He submitted an amended petition in 2005, arguing that (1) Lee was entitled to a new trial because of newly discovered and exculpatory scientific evidence, and (2) appellate counsel was ineffective on direct appeal by failing to raise a claim of after-discovered exculpatory evidence. The Court of Common Pleas denied the petition for post-conviction relief, the Superior Court affirmed,

798 F.3d 162

and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania denied appeal.

Lee filed a § 2254 habeas petition in the District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, claiming that (1) his conviction violated due process because it was based on inaccurate and unreliable evidence and (2) his continued incarceration also lacked the due process due him because newly developed scientific evidence showed he was probably innocent.2 The District Court denied Lee's petition and request for an evidentiary hearing because “claims of actual innocence based on newly discovered evidence are never grounds for federal habeas relief absent an independent constitutional violation.” Lee v. Tennis, No. 08–1972, 2010 WL 3812160, *5 (M.D.Pa. Sept. 22, 2010).

A panel of our court reversed on appeal. Explaining that Lee's petition raised a due-process claim rather than a free-standing innocence claim, Lee, 667 F.3d at 403 n. 5, we ordered the District Court to grant discovery and then reconsider whether to hold an evidentiary hearing. Id. at 404–07 & n. 7. We instructed that Lee “must show that the admission of the fire expert testimony undermined the fundamental fairness of the entire trial because the probative value of [the fire expert] evidence, though relevant, is greatly outweighed by the prejudice to the accused from its admission.”Id. at 403 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted, alteration in original). We also implied that habeas relief should be denied if there is “ample other evidence of guilt.” Id. at 407 n. 13 (quoting Albrecht v. Horn, 485 F.3d 103, 126 (3d Cir.2007) ).

On remand, Magistrate Judge Carlson held an evidentiary hearing and issued a Report & Recommendation (R & R) finding that “the admission of the fire expert testimony undermined the fundamental fairness of the entire trial” because the “verdict ... rest[ed] almost entirely upon scientific pillars which have now eroded.” Lee v. Tennis, No. 08–1972, 2014 WL 3894306, at *15–16 (June 13, 2014) [hereinafter R & R ]. It also found that the Commonwealth failed to show other “ ‘ample evidence’ of guilt upon which the jury could have relied.” Id. at *18 (quoting Albrecht, 485 F.3d at 126 ).

Along with a two-page memorandum, the Commonwealth filed three objections to the R & R before the District Court:

1. [It] underplayed the strength of the Commonwealth's case in general.
2. [It] overstated the importance of the differences between the spectrographs for Lee's pants and shirt, and the jug and the glove found at the fire scene.
3. [ ]Lee has not been exonerated by the new fire science evidence.

App. E. at 1–3.

The District Court rejected the third objection because, as explained in our prior opinion in this case, Lee's due-process claim does not require a showing of innocence. Lee v. Tennis, No. 08–1972, 2014 WL 3900230, *5 (M.D.Pa. Aug. 8, 2014) (citing Lee, 667 F.3d at 403 n. 5 ). In addition, the Court rejected the first and second objections because the Commonwealth failed to identify with specificity any legal or factual errors in the R & R. Id. In the absence of any proper objections, the District Court reviewed the R & R for clear error and adopted it without changes. Id. at *4–5. It then issued an order granting habeas relief unless the

798 F.3d 163

Commonwealth “retr[ied] ... or release[d]” Lee within 120 days. Id. at *7.

The Local Rules in the Middle District of Pennsylvania require filing a notice of appeal electronically. The District's electronic filing system requires that the moving party simultaneously pay a $505 filing fee. As the credit account for the County of Monroe limits payments to $500, the Commonwealth was unable to pay the fee by credit card. Instead, it mailed a notice of appeal along with a check on September 5, 2014. The District Court Clerk's Office received the package on September 8, exactly 30 days after entry of judgment. The docket initially indicated that the notice was filed the next day, September 9, but a few weeks later the Clerk's Office noted on the docket that the “[f]iled date for the notice of appeal has been corrected to reflect the date of 9/8/2014, the date it was received by the Court.”

II. Jurisdiction

A “certificate of appealability is not required when a state ... appeals” a grant of habeas relief. Fed. R.App. P. 22(b)(3) ; see also Lambert v. Blackwell, 387 F.3d 210, 230 n. 16 (3d Cir.2004). We thus have appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1291 and 2253(a) if the Commonwealth “filed” a notice of appeal “within 30 days after the entry of ... judgment.” 28 U.S.C. § 2107.

Lee first argues that the notice of appeal was untimely because the Clerk's Office did not file it until 31 days after entry of judgment. This is a non-starter. Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5(d)(2), a notice of appeal is “filed by delivering it ... to the clerk,” id., and is delivered when received by the clerk, Parissi v. Telechron, Inc., 349 U.S. 46, 47, 75 S.Ct. 577, 99 L.Ed. 867 (1955) (per curiam ) (“[T]he Clerk's receipt of the notice of appeal within the 30–day period satisfied the requirements of § 2107.”); United States v. Solly, 545 F.2d 874, 876 (3d Cir.1976) (“The date of receipt by the clerk's office controls, rather than the date it is filed by the clerk's personnel.”). The parties and the Clerk's Office all agree that the notice was received on the 30th day. That it was not filed officially until the day after is irrelevant to our jurisdiction.

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26 practice notes
  • Waterford v. Washburn, No. 3:19-cv-00651
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Tennessee
    • April 21, 2020
    ...must determine whether the challenged conduct undermined the fundamental fairness of the entire trial. Han Tak Lee v. Houtzdale SCI , 798 F.3d 159, 162, 166, 168 (3d Cir. 2015) (affirming habeas corpus relief for petitioner who articulated a due process claim based on the fact that scientif......
  • Sanchez v. Martinez, No. 2:17-cv-0455 DB P
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Eastern District of California
    • November 16, 2020
    ...the fundamental fairness of the entire trial."5 Giminez v. Ochoa, 821 F.3d 1136, 1145 (9th Cir. 2016) (quoting Lee v. Houtzdale SCI, 798 F.3d 159, 162 (3d Cir. 2015)). On the basis that petitioner may arguably state a federal claim, this court considers whether the California Court of Appea......
  • Langbord v. U.S. Dep't of the Treasury, No. 12-4574
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • August 1, 2016
    ...did not “seriously affect[ ] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” Han Tak Lee v. Houtzdale SCI , 798 F.3d 159, 166 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting Nara v. Frank, 488 F.3d 187, 197 (3d Cir. 2007) ). These three brief comments were made before the District Court cure......
  • Langston v. Sherman, Case No. 1:17-cv-01108-DAD-SAB-HC
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of California
    • July 13, 2018
    ...the fundamental fairness of the entire trial.'" Gimenez v. Ochoa, 821 F.3d 1136, 1145 (9th Cir. 2016) (quoting Lee v. Houtzdale SCI, 798 F.3d 159, 162 (3d Cir. 2015)). That is, a habeas petitioner must show that the admission of the expert testimony was "so extremely unfair that it[ ] . . .......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
26 cases
  • Waterford v. Washburn, No. 3:19-cv-00651
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Court of Middle District of Tennessee
    • April 21, 2020
    ...must determine whether the challenged conduct undermined the fundamental fairness of the entire trial. Han Tak Lee v. Houtzdale SCI , 798 F.3d 159, 162, 166, 168 (3d Cir. 2015) (affirming habeas corpus relief for petitioner who articulated a due process claim based on the fact that scientif......
  • Sanchez v. Martinez, No. 2:17-cv-0455 DB P
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. United States District Courts. 9th Circuit. Eastern District of California
    • November 16, 2020
    ...the fundamental fairness of the entire trial."5 Giminez v. Ochoa, 821 F.3d 1136, 1145 (9th Cir. 2016) (quoting Lee v. Houtzdale SCI, 798 F.3d 159, 162 (3d Cir. 2015)). On the basis that petitioner may arguably state a federal claim, this court considers whether the California Court of Appea......
  • Langbord v. U.S. Dep't of the Treasury, No. 12-4574
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (3rd Circuit)
    • August 1, 2016
    ...did not “seriously affect[ ] the fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings.” Han Tak Lee v. Houtzdale SCI , 798 F.3d 159, 166 (3d Cir. 2015) (quoting Nara v. Frank, 488 F.3d 187, 197 (3d Cir. 2007) ). These three brief comments were made before the District Court cure......
  • Langston v. Sherman, Case No. 1:17-cv-01108-DAD-SAB-HC
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of California
    • July 13, 2018
    ...the fundamental fairness of the entire trial.'" Gimenez v. Ochoa, 821 F.3d 1136, 1145 (9th Cir. 2016) (quoting Lee v. Houtzdale SCI, 798 F.3d 159, 162 (3d Cir. 2015)). That is, a habeas petitioner must show that the admission of the expert testimony was "so extremely unfair that it[ ] . . .......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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