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COLUMN ONE

Justice Served--or Subverted?

A U.S. judge called Pennsylvania murder trial 'corrupted from start to finish,' sparking outrage by freeing the convicted killer in unprecedented ruling.

November 09, 1997|BARRY SIEGEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LANCASTER, Pa. — On its face, the handwritten document that arrived at the United States Courthouse in Philadelphia the summer of 1996 looked to be an entirely futile affair.

It was yet another petition for a writ of habeas corpus, filed by a convicted murderer seeking an order freeing her because she was illegally imprisoned. Federal courthouses receive thousands of such pleas each year from state prisoners; virtually all are rejected outright. This one--Lisa Michelle Lambert vs. Mrs. Charlotte Blackwell, Supt., entered in the docket on Sept. 12 as civil action No. 96-6244--faced even more obstacles than most.

Lisa Lambert, then 24--considered "trailer trash" by some in Lancaster County--had written her habeas petition without the help of an attorney. Unable to pay assorted fees, she'd attached a request to proceed as a pauper. She'd listed a number of claims, but none that judges hadn't heard countless times before.

Worst of all, she'd found no way to obscure the basic details of her case, since they were readily available in newspaper accounts as well as court records. Lisa Lambert's murder trial had been the most notorious ever in this bucolic region known for its Amish enclave and Pennsylvania Dutch culture.

The East Lampeter police arrested Lisa and two friends just hours after finding the body of 16-year-old Laurie Show on the floor of her mother's condominium, her throat slashed ear-to-ear. Lisa, then 19, had been harassing Laurie over a teenage romantic rivalry. Yes, Lisa conceded to the police. Yes, she'd been at the Shows' condo that morning.

At her trial, courtroom spectators jeered as they eyed Lisa's tight skirts and heavy makeup. The presiding judge, after hearing the case without a jury, found her guilty of first-degree murder. Lisa's defense attorneys were pleased when she drew life without parole rather than the death penalty.

In the trial's aftermath, the victim's mother, Hazel Show, successfully campaigned for a new state anti-stalking law. The lead police detective signed a contract with a television movie production company. Lisa failed with no less than four appeals, the last denied by the state Supreme Court.

Now came this federal habeas petition, Lisa's final chance.

Whatever meager prospects it possessed appeared to evaporate when, after being received by the clerk of the U.S. District Court, it was assigned to Judge Stewart Dalzell. Dalzell's background suggested little interest in the plight of a convicted murderer. Then 53, a former real estate lawyer at a blue-chip Philadelphia firm, he was known as a pro-business Republican who favored strict sentences and victims' rights.

Yet something in Lisa Lambert's petition caught the judge's eye. After studying the handwritten pages, Dalzell reached for his phone. This one isn't a capital case, he told a death row specialist at a top Philadelphia law firm. But I think someone there might be interested.

So began a federal proceeding unprecedented in American history--one with far-reaching implications for how criminal cases are handled throughout the 50 states.

Lancaster County citizens are still reeling over what transpired, and what was revealed, in Judge Dalzell's courtroom last April. What happened there represents a frontal challenge to how the courts, the states and the federal government administer justice. Increasingly in recent years, judges and Congress, bowing to state jurisdiction, have sharply narrowed convicts' chances of gaining federal review of their cases, no matter how strong their claims may be. Yet this federal judge, saying he didn't trust Pennsylvania to be fair, did not just grant a review; he reached deeply into what are normally sovereign state proceedings.

When it was over, Lisa Lambert walked out of Dalzell's courtroom a free woman, declared by the judge to be "actually innocent." When it was over, those prosecutors and detectives who'd put her away faced criminal investigations by a U.S. attorney. When it was over, all of Lancaster County stood condemned by Dalzell for having "made a Faustian bargain" and "lost its soul."

In barring the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from ever retrying Lambert--the action that makes this case unprecedented--Dalzell proclaimed: "We entertain no doubt at all that [her] trial was corrupted from start to finish by wholesale prosecutorial misconduct. . . . The fact is the Commonwealth rigged the proceedings in the state trial to such an extent that it was a trial in name only. . . . The Commonwealth's conduct in this matter shocks our conscience."

Here in Lancaster County, though, it's not the commonwealth's role that dismays, but Judge Dalzell's. In a community informed deeply by a fundamentalist Christian ethos, legions still seethe over Dalzell. By formal petition, many thousands now call for his impeachment. By distraught letters and phone calls, many thousands insist that it's Dalzell who is guilty of monstrous misconduct.

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