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COLUMN ONE

A Bitter Lesson for Lancaster County

Judge says Pennsylvania community 'lost its soul' in push to convict woman of murder. Residents claim he, not they, are mocking justice. Right or wrong, his ruling challenges U.S. court system's balance of power.

November 10, 1997|BARRY SIEGEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LANCASTER, Pa. — By midmorning on the first day of Lisa Michelle Lambert's federal habeas corpus hearing, U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell already could be seen displaying alarm over what he was hearing.

From the lawyers' briefs alone, he'd read enough to persuade him to grant Lisa's request for this uncommon federal review of a state murder conviction. He'd read enough to suspect that just possibly,Lisa Lambert, although sentenced to life without parole, hadn't killed Laurie Show over a teenage romantic rivalry. He'd read enough to surmise that just maybe, Lisa's boyfriend, Lawrence "Butch" Yunkin, along with a girl named Tabitha Buck, had killed Laurie.

Now, he was listening to evidence that served only to deepen his concerns regarding Lancaster County's prosecution of Lisa.

It was March 31. Computers, boxes of documents and piles of papers filled the small hearing room on the fifth floor of the federal courthouse in downtown Philadelphia. Lisa's parents sat in the first row, Laurie Show's behind them. Reporters and court personnel occupied the jury box. On the stand, an expert witness for Lisa's side, Northwestern University speech professor Charles Larson, was testifying.

Contrary to the autopsy report, Larson believed--as did three emergency medical technicians and the Philadelphia medical examiner--that Laurie Show's left carotid artery had been severed by whoever slashed her throat. This, he explained, left her unable to say "Michelle did it," as Laurie's mother, Hazel, had claimed. Her vocal tract was "destroyed," her left brain hemisphere "dying." She was "totally incapable of speech."

How, asked Lisa's attorney, Christina Rainville, could two doctors have signed an autopsy report saying that the carotid arteries weren't "involved"?

Those two doctors were both Lancaster County physicians, one the part-time coroner, the other an ear-nose-and-throat specialist.

"I don't think they were telling the truth," Larson replied.

Dalzell peered over gold wire-rimmed bifocals at the witness. "Oh," he said. "Well, OK."

So it went, hour by hour, for 15 days.

That this hearing was even being held appalled most in Lancaster County, about 75 miles west of Philadelphia. In the 1991 killing of Laurie Show, Lisa had already been found guilty of first-degree murder, Tabitha Buck of second-degree, Butch Yunkin of third-degree. Now here was Lisa, claiming her innocence, claiming all sorts of prosecutorial abuse. Now here was Lisa, seeking a federal order freeing her because the state had illegally imprisoned her.

For Lisa to cast herself as an innocent victim was maddening enough. For a federal judge to take her seriously was unimaginable. Yet that was just what was happening in this Philadelphia courtroom.

The second day of the hearing found Dalzell puzzling over two quite different versions of a videotaped police search of the Susquehanna River. The one initially provided by the Lancaster County district attorney, eight minutes long, had no soundtrack, and no images of police finding a pink bag Lisa said she'd thrown there. The second, obtained through discovery only after Rainville realized she'd been sent an edited tape, was four minutes longer. It had sound. It also had an officer kicking at a pink bag while another asked, "What do you got, a bag?"

After watching these tapes, Dalzell removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes, something he'd do more than once during the three-week hearing. He studied Lisa, also something he'd do more than once, especially in the hearing's early days. Lisa, sobbing off and on, was staring down at the table where she sat, bent over, her hands between her legs. Dalzell looked as if he were trying to fathom her character.

The third day found Dalzell puzzling over Lisa's initial statement to the police. He listened to East Lampeter Police Det. Raymond Solt try to reconcile the typewritten first page, where Lisa says she wore her own clothes at the murder scene, and a handwritten last page where Lisa says she wore Butch's sweatpants. He listened to Solt explain how he destroyed all his notes from the interview. By the time Solt stepped down, the judge was referring openly to "Ms. Lambert's alleged statement."

With Det. Ronald Barley on the stand later that afternoon, Dalzell grew even more openly dissatisfied. Barley was a well-regarded detective in Lancaster County. A "very thorough investigator" is how Ted Darcus, chairman of Lancaster's City Council, considered him. Barley "dealt well with people in our community accused of crimes." Yet this wasn't apparent to Dalzell.

Barley, being questioned about the taped interview he helped conduct with Butch Yunkin--a tape full of laughter, clicks and obvious gaps--kept waffling so much that Dalzell finally snapped: "Answer her question! Yes or no?" Rather than heed the suggestion, Barley grew even more evasive. Asked about a critical spot where the recorder clicked off, he denied even being in the interview room at that moment.

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