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Orban v. Vaughn

August 18, 1997

ATTILA ORBAN

v.

DONALD T. VAUGHN; DISTRICT ATTORNEY FOR PHILADELPHIA COUNTY; THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE STATE OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLANTS



On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

(D.C. Civ. No. 95-05962)

BEFORE: GREENBERG and MCKEE, Circuit Judges, and GREENAWAY, *fn* District Judge

GREENBERG, Circuit Judge.

Filed August 18, 1997

Argued June 26, 1997

OPINION OF THE COURT

Respondents, Donald T. Vaughn, the District Attorney of Philadelphia County, and the Attorney General of Pennsylvania, whom we will call collectively the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, appeal from an order entered November 6, 1996, in the district court in favor of petitioner, Attila Orban. The district court order granted Orban's petition for a writ of habeas corpus to the extent of vacating his convictions and sentences entered in state court following a nonjury trial for aggravated assault and recklessly endangering another person (two counts on each charge) arising out of a motor vehicle accident in which three people were killed and two others injured. The district court predicated its order on its conclusion that the vacated convictions were not supported by sufficient evidence. The order in all other respects denied Orban's petition. It also directed that he be released from custody unless the state court resentenced him on his remaining convictions arising from the accident. We reject the district court's conclusion that the convictions were not supported by sufficient evidence. Therefore, we will reverse the order of the district court to the extent that it granted Orban habeas corpus relief.

I. JURISDICTION AND STANDARD OF REVIEW

Orban brought this action under 28 U.S.C. Section(s) 2254. We have jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. Section(s) 1291 and 2253. On this appeal, we exercise plenary review over the district court's legal conclusions. Alston v. Redman, 34 F.3d 1237, 1242 (3d Cir. 1994). Furthermore, inasmuch as the district court relied on the state court record in concluding that the evidence was insufficient to support the convictions, we will exercise plenary review of that conclusion. See Jackson v. Byrd, 105 F.3d 145, 147 (3d Cir.), cert. denied, 117 S.Ct. 2442 (1997).

II. FACTUAL HISTORY

On Sunday, April 20, 1990, Orban was traveling north in his truck on Interstate 95 in Philadelphia. He drove his vehicle across three lanes of traffic and then hit and crossed the guardrail and struck a car heading south. Three occupants of the car hit by Orban were killed and the other two were injured seriously.

Several eyewitnesses testified at the non-jury trial in this case. Edmond F. McGowan, who also was driving north on Route 95, observed Orban's truck rapidly approaching from his rear, traveling at approximately 65-70 miles per hour. When McGowan observed Orban "going back and forth" within the right hand lane and even crossing the dotted line into the next lane, he changed lanes to avoid Orban's vehicle. After Orban passed McGowan, McGowan saw Orban proceeding in the right hand lane for one quarter mile without weaving. Then McGowan saw Orban suddenly make a 90-degree turn across all lanes of traffic and into and over the guardrail. Frank Sprangle and Steven Siegel testified that they observed Orban weaving in traffic and suddenly hit and jump over the guardrail.

At the scene of the accident Orban offered three different explanations for his behavior. He said that someone had struck his truck from behind, a friend had been driving the truck, and he must have fallen asleep at the wheel. Orban, however, later abandoned these explanations. At trial, he stated that his truck may have been hit from behind causing his head to hit the windshield, and he may ...


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