(CN) - The Supreme Court on Tuesday dashed an order to free or retry a death-row inmate convicted of double homicide more than 30 years ago.
"Any retrial here would take place three decades after the crime, posing the most daunting difficulties for the prosecution," the six-page decision states (emphasis in original). "That burden should not be imposed unless each ground supporting the state court decision is examined and found to be unreasonable under AEDPA [the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996].
James Lambert had nearly won his freedom last year based on evidence that may have exonerated him at trial.
In 1984, Lambert was sentenced to death for murdering two people while robbing a Philadelphia business called Prince's Lounge.
Admitted accomplice Bernard Jackson testified against Lambert and also identified Bruce Reese as a participant to the crime. But Lambert recently discovered a 1982 document in which Jackson identifies a third man named Lawrence Woodlock as a co-defendant, presumably to the robbery he committed with Lambert and Reese.
Lambert said prosecutors never disclosed the "police activity sheet" that contained this information in violation of Supreme Court precedent in Brady v. Maryland, which held that it is a violation of due process for prosecutors to suppress evidence that favor the defendant.
Prosecutors countered that Jackson had admitted to at least 13 other armed robberies, and that the notation could have referred to any of those crimes. But Lambert said witnesses to the Prince's Lounge incident are the only ones whom police asked to identify Woodlock in a photo lineup.
No identification was made, and Lambert says the evidence would impeach Jackson's testimony.
After the state courts rejected Lambert's Brady claim, a federal judge ruled that the prisoner did not have a habeas case.
"The various notations and statements which [Lambert] claims the commonwealth should have disclosed are entirely ambiguous, and would have required the state courts to speculate to conclude they were favorable for Lambert and material to his guilt or punishment," the court held.
An appeal to the 3rd Circuit, however, went in Lambert's favor last year. The court's three-judge panel ordered him freed if not retried in four months.
"The Third Circuit concluded that it was 'patently unreasonable' for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to presume that whenever a witness is impeached in one manner, any other impeachment evidence would be immaterial," the U.S. Supreme Court's summarized Tuesday. "According to the Third Circuit, the notation that Jackson had identified Woodlock as a 'codefendant' would have 'opened an entirely new line of impeachment' because the prosecutor at trial had relied on the fact that Jackson had consistently named Lambert as the third participant in the robbery."
After the state petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari, the justices reversed in a summary order. They said the lower court missed the point and suspiciously ignored the ambiguity finding, which had been the basis for the District Court's ruling.
"If the conclusion in the state courts about the content of the document was reasonable - not necessarily correct, but reasonable - whatever those courts had to say about cumulative impeachment evidence would be beside the point," the unsigned decision states. "The failure of the Third Circuit even to address the 'ambiguous' nature of the notations, and the 'speculat[ive]' nature of Lambert's reading of them, is especially surprising, given that this was the basis of the District Court ruling."
In a three-page dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer rejected the idea that the police notation was ambiguous.
"The notation clearly refers to this case, not to some other case," according to the dissent, which Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan joined. "It sets forth the file number of this investigation, the investigators of this crime, the victims of this murder, and the potential witnesses of these events. It does not refer specifically to any other robbery. The notation says that "[a] [p]hoto display was shown to ... [witnesses in this case],' and it specifies that the '[p]hoto display contained a Lawrence Woodlock.' In this context, the words must refer to a display that included persons potentially involved in this robbery. That being so, the most natural reading of the statement, 'Mr. Woodlock is named as co-defendant by Bernard Jackson,' is that it too refers to this murder and not to some other crime."
Breyer also disagreed that the federal appeals court "overlooked" the ambiguity issue, noting that the state courts never made any such determinations.
"If the trial court expressed any view about ambiguity, it thought that the police notation was not ambiguous," he added.
While the Supreme Court majority pointed out that the state high court used the word "speculative," Breyer said the context shows "that the court used that word to refer to Lambert's claim that the notation showed that he was innocent."
Other findings by the 3rd Circuit also "suggest that the commonwealth's case against Lambert was unusually weak," the dissent states. "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."