Tuesday, February 15, 2011

State Court Unreasonably Denied Brady Relief for Commonwealth’s Concealment of Evidence

In Lambert v. Beard, ___ F.3d ___, 2011 WL 353209 (3d Cir. Feb. 7, 2011), Judge Barry authored the panel opinion granting guilt-innocence phase relief in this 1984 Philadelphia capital case. The state’s star witness, Jackson, who initially was identified as one of the shooters in a barroom robbery-murder, identified petitioner as one of two robbers who entered the bar while Jackson waited in the getaway car. Jackson was extensively impeached at trial, but the prosecution argued that one aspect of his testimony—his identification of Lambert and a second party as the two men who committed the crime—had never changed. In postconviction and habeas petitions, Lambert presented evidence that the prosecutor’s claim was untrue. The Commonwealth had never disclosed a police activity sheet showing that Jackson at one time named a third party, not Lambert or the second party he identified at trial, as a “co-defendant” responsible for the shooting.

The Commonwealth conceded that the prosecution should have disclosed this information, and the Circuit panel held that the state courts had unreasonably found that the information was not material. The court acknowledged Harrington v. Richter’s holding that a state court merits ruling precludes federal habeas relief as long as “fairminded jurists could disagree” about the correctness of the ruling. Nevertheless, the panel held, it had found constitutional error and had a duty to correct it. Unlike all of the other impeachment evidence introduced at trial, the information in the police activity sheet would have opened “an entirely new line of impeachment” and thus was not cumulative. For that reason, the evidence was material and the state courts’ failure to grant relief for its nondisclosure was unreasonable.

The panel had issued an extraordinary order in November, stating that Lambert was clearly entitled to penalty phase relief because of Mills v. Maryland error, and should be taken off death row while the court drafted a full opinion that would address both the guilt-innocence and penalty phase issues. The Commonwealth’s petition for panel rehearing or rehearing en banc of that order was pending when the panel issued its February opinion. It vacated the November order and dismissed the Commonwealth’s petition on the ground that both were now moot.

Digest by Claudia Van Wyk, EDPA

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