Monday, August 24, 2015

Habeas relief affirmed: government concedes unreliable fire-science and chromatography evidence has been discredited and Court finds remaining evidence not sufficiently “ample” to prove arson and murder beyond a reasonable doubt

In Han Lee v. Superintendent Houtzdale SCI, the Third Circuit affirmed habeas relief (under 28 U.S.C. § 2254) granted to a father who spent 24 years in prison for allegedly setting a fire that killed his daughter. 

First, the Court accepted the case on the merits, rejecting procedural challenges to the appeal. A notice of appeal is delivered when received by the clerk, regardless of when it was officially filed. (discussing Fed.R.Civ.P. 5(d)(2)). A notice of appeal is valid so long as it specifies the appealing party, designates the judgment being appealed, and names the court to which the appeal is taken, even if it violates a local electronic filing requirement. (citing Fed.R.App.P. 3(c)(1)). 

 The Court then reviewed magistrate’s report and recommendation for plain error, without AEDPA deference, consistent with the law of the case.  See Lee v. Glunt, 667 F.3d 397, 400–03 (3d Cir. 2012).  The magistrate found that Lee had shown “that the admission of the fire expert testimony undermined the fundamental fairness of the entire trial because the probative value of [that] evidence, though relevant, [was] greatly outweighed by the prejudice to the accused from its admission.” Lee, 667 F.3d at 403.  The Commonwealth conceded that the basis for fire-science and gas-chromatography evidence has now been discredited.  The Court found that the remaining evidence was not sufficiently “ample” to prove arson and murder beyond a reasonable doubt.  That evidence was: (1) alleged inconsistencies in the Korean-to-English interpretation of statements made by Lee in the hours following his daughter’s death, (2) a cultural stoicism construed as nonchalance, and (3) autopsy results which posited two alternate theories of cause of death, one wholly consistent with death in an accidental fire, and the other (strangulation) which had very little forensic support.