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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

This one, drafted by Rainville and seven of her colleagues, offered professionally printed blocks of type instead of graceful schoolgirl curls; now it looked like a legal brief rather than an invitation to a birthday party. More important, it raised the stakes. This revised petition declared Lisa Lambert innocent.

"Inevitably," her lawyers declared, "there are situations where the criminal justice system fails. So far, this is such a case. . . . Police and the prosecution first decided that she was guilty, then tried to find evidence to support their theory. When evidence failed to suggest that Lambert in fact was guilty, evidence was altered, manipulated, and even manufactured. Witnesses were tampered with, and perjury was committed. . . ."

Judge Dalzell began to turn the pages of the petition.

Here were photos of Laurie Show's neck wound: 5 inches side to side, 2 inches in width, the widest portion at least an inch-and-a-quarter deep. Here was a speech expert declaring unequivocally that given the nature of this severe wound, Laurie Show's dying declaration--"Michelle did it"--was impossible.

Here were photos showing that a dying Laurie had written Butch and Tabitha's initials in blood on her hallway walls. Here were reports of Tabitha's earlier fights with Laurie. Here was mention of an earring found on the victim's body that matched one worn by Butch. Here was an eyewitness account of Butch at the murder scene. Here were claims of altered evidence, missing evidence, hidden evidence.

On page 31, Judge Dalzell saw a particularly startling charge: that the prosecutor had tampered with Lisa Lambert's expert witness, a pathologist named Isidore Mihalakis.

Before trial, Assistant Dist. Atty. John Kenneff had called Mihalakis to say he was "displeased and disappointed" that he was working for Lisa Lambert and was "concerned" about the county hiring him for "future cases." At a hearing held after this contact came to light, Mihalakis denied that Kenneff's comments affected him. But at the trial, much to Lisa's lawyer's surprise, Mihalakis sounded like a witness for the prosecution.

Where he'd earlier stated that Lisa couldn't have forced the knife into Laurie's bone as hard as the evidence indicated, now he said she could. Where he'd once stated it was highly unlikely that Laurie could have talked, now he said her ability to speak was compromised but not eliminated. The change in Mihalakis' fortunes after this testimony was striking: His income from his work as a state expert quadrupled the next year from less than $10,000 to $41,919.

On other pages, Dalzell could see something even more interesting: Butch Yunkin's apparent confession to the murder.

It came in a letter exchanged between Butch and Lisa while both sat in prison awaiting trial.

"Listen to me," Lisa wrote. "I guess I won't tell on you, BUT PLEASE answer these questions honestly. There are some things I need to know if I'm supposed to take the Blame for WHAT YOU DID! MAIL THESE BACK TO ME."

There had been 29 questions in all.

WILL you promise TO love me if I lie for you?

Butch's answer: Always + Forever.

Will you always stick WITH me as long as I still don't tell that YOU held Laurie down FOR Tabby?

Butch's answer: Will always love you.

Do you PROMISE to not BEAT my face up anymore, if I lie 4 U? That's WHY I Had said "I HATED you!" Will you be nice like our 1st date?

Butch's answer: Yes

Are you sure that if I take the blame for you THAT I'll get less time. Absolutely sure?

Butch's answer: Yes

Should I STILL cover up that YOU helped Tabby KILL Laurie? Are you absolutely sure?

Butch's answer: Yes, I'm positive.

From the record before him, Dalzell could see this letter had been introduced at Lisa's trial. Butch, on the witness stand, had called it a fake. Butch: the prosecution's star witness.

What to make of all this? The claims were troubling, but criminal cases always involve a hodgepodge of murky detail; prosecutors and defense attorneys constantly battle over whose version of events should prevail. The authorities who prosecuted Lisa had explanations for everything. The state's conduct in the Lambert case hadn't in the least bothered Pennsylvania state trial and appellate judges.

Why, then, should it concern a federal judge?

A Blue-Blood 'Law-and-Order' Judge

A graduate of the law school and the Wharton School of Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, Stewart Dalzell had come from Philadelphia's Main Line. He'd practiced for 22 years at the prominent law firm of Drinker, Biddle & Reath, where he specialized in real estate law and became known as a rainmaker. His appointment to the federal bench in 1991 by President Bush came six months after the death of his close friend, the late U.S. Sen. John Heinz, for whom he served as campaign treasurer. He was active in the Episcopal Church; he was married with two children. He was known as a "middle-of-the-road Republican" and a "neoconservative on economic issues."

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