SUPREME COURT: Conviction of Pennsylvania Death Row Inmate Restored

On February 21 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a U.S. Court of Appeals decision granting a retrial to James Lambert, who had been convicted and sentenced to death in 1984 in Pennsylvania. Lambert appealed his conviction, claiming that prosecutors never disclosed evidence identifying an additional co-defendant, in violation of Brady v. Maryland. Lambert claimed this new evidence would have impeached the testimony that led to his conviction. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled in favor of Lambert, ordering him to be released or retried in four months. The Supreme Court held that “the various notations and statements which [Lambert] claims the commonwealth should have disclosed are en­tirely ambiguous.” The Court also noted, “Any retrial here would take place three decades after the crime, posing the most daunting difficulties for the prose­cution…. That burden should not be imposed unless each ground supporting the state court’s decision had been examined and found to be unreasonable under AEDPA [the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act].” The dissent, written by Justice Stephen Breyer and joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan, said the nota­tion about the co-defendant was not ambiguous, and noted, “if the Commonwealth was wrong, an innocent man has spent almost 30 years in prison under sentence of death for a crime he did not commit.” Read full opinion here.

(B. Leonard, Courthouse News Service, February 21, 2012; Wetzel v. Lambert, No. 11-38). See U.S. Supreme Court.