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Death Row Inmate To be Retried Within 120 Days or Released

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For 26 years, James Lambert has been on death row proclaiming his innocence of a 1982 murder. Yesterday, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ordered that if the Commonwealth does not retry him within 120 days, he “shall be released.” A copy of the opinion is available here.

Stuart Lev from the Defender Association of Philadelphia Capital Habeas Unit and private attorney Daniel Silverman handled the case.

Mr. Lambert was convicted of killing two patrons at Prince’s Lounge in Philadelphia on September 23, 1982. At his trial, the only evidence to link him to the crime was the testimony of Bernard Jackson. Mr. Jackson was the original suspect in the case, and was the subject of an anonymous tip to the Police Department identifying him and another man, Bruce Reese (Jackson’s brother in law and Mr. Lambert’s eventual co-defendant) as the shooters. One of the barmaids identified Jackson as having been one of the 2 robbers, and another said she was “85-90 percent sure” Jackson was there.

Jackson initially told police that Reese and “another dude” (lated said to be Mr. Lambert) committed the robbery while he himself waited outside in a getaway car. Although his story changed significantly across numerous interviews (and his trial testimony), Mr. Jackson always maintained that Reese and Lambert were the only two involved in the murder.

After he was convicted and sentenced to death row, Mr. Lambert learned that Jackson had actually named another individual, L.W., as a “co-defendant.” That information, as admitted by the Commonwealth’s attorneys, should have been turned over to Mr. Lambert prior to trial but was not.

While it is unquestionable that the Commonwealth has an obligation to turn over information which is “exculpatory,” that rule is not a guarantee of a new trial if violated. Only if a court determines that the withheld information is “material” — that if the information had been disclosed to the defense “the result of the proceeding would have been different”–then a new trial is warranted.

Here, the Court of Common Pleas, the Pennsylvania Superior Court, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and the United States District Court all had held that, while the identification of another “co-defendant” should have been disclosed, it was not “material” and therefore, a new trial was not required.

The Third Circuit panel unanimously disgreed. Indeed, the Court went so far as to point out that the evidence suggested that Mr. Lambert may not have even been present at the crime scene or, at the least, that he was not the one who killed the bar patrons. Two witnesses identified Jackson as being at the bar, not Mr. Lambert. Mr. Lambert’s gun was a .32 caliber weapon and the victims were shot with a .38 caliber gun. Mr. Lambert is 6′ tall, and the witnesses described the shooter as “no more than 5’7″.” Because the Court felt that it did not have faith that the conviction was “worthy of confidence,” they ordered that the Commonwealth “shall retry Lambert within 120 days. If it fails to do so, Lambert shall be released.”

Sadly, once again, we see the effects of the failure of a Commonwealth agent to disclose all information that is material to a homicide or other criminal investigation. Had the information regarding L.W. been presented at trial, Mr. Lambert may have still been convicted of the murder or he may not have been. But at least there would not be lingering questions 26 years later as to his guilt or innocence, and the lives of all of those involved–from Mr. Lambert and his family to the victims’ families–would not have to be continually unsettled. The Pennsylvania Innocence Project supports increased training for police and prosecutors as to the requirements of disclosing exculpatory evidence, and for the increased access to police records post-convcition. Without those necessary tools and that oversight, we will likely continue to see cases such as this.

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