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Laughman v. Commonwealth

August 16, 2007

BARRY LAUGHMAN, PLAINTIFF
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane

MEMORANDUM

On September 8, 1987, Plaintiff Barry Laughman was arrested and charged with the murder, burglary, and rape of his distant relative, Edna Laughman. After a death-qualified jury found him guilty, Laughman was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment. On November 21, 2003, after certain DNA tests ruled him out as the perpetrator, Laughman was released from state custody. Before his release, Laughman spent sixteen years in prison.

On May 20, 2005, Laughman brought this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Adams County, the Adams County District Attorney's Office, several former Pennsylvania State Police Commissioners, and individual defendants John Holtz, Donald Blevins, and Janice Roadcap. Laughman alleges that the defendants deprived him of rights guaranteed under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution, as well as rights protected under the Pennsylvania Constitution. On March 17, 2006, this Court granted motions to dismiss filed by the Commonwealth, Adams County, the Adams County District Attorney's Office, and the Pennsylvania State Police Commissioners, and dismissed them as parties to this action. Remaining individual defendants Holtz, Blevins, and Roadcap ("Defendants") filed a joint answer to the complaint (Doc. No. 27), and this action proceeded. On February 14, 2007, Defendants moved for summary judgment on the remaining claims. (Doc. No. 56.) After the parties submitted briefs, statements of material facts, and related exhibits (Doc. Nos. 56-72), the Court heard oral argument on July 25, 2007. Defendants' motion is ripe for disposition. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be denied.

I. BACKGROUND

The circumstances giving rise to the instant suit began in the early evening of August 13, 1987, when Edna Laughman was found raped and murdered in her bedroom in Oxford Township, Adams County, Pennsylvania. Later that evening, Defendant Donald Blevins, an eighteen-year veteran of the Pennsylvania State Police in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, arrived at the scene and assumed the role of lead investigator into Ms. Laughman's death. A few days later, Defendant John Holtz, a nineteen-year veteran of the Pennsylvania State Police in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, joined the investigation of the case. As part of the investigation, various biological specimens were taken from the scene, including blood samples and fluid swabs, and an autopsy was conducted. Several of the biological samples were then forwarded to Defendant Janice Roadcap, a chemist for the Pennsylvania State Police, who determined that the perpetrator likely must have been an "A secretor," because no "B antigens" were present in the sample. The autopsy revealed that Edna Laughman's death was caused by suffocation due to upper-airway obstruction by medication pills.

Two weeks later, on August 27, Blevins and Holtz met with Plaintiff Barry Laughman ("Laughman"). At the time, Laughman was 24-years' old, and had an IQ of 69-71. On September 8, Blevins and Holtz again met with Laughman at the Gettysburg police station. At the conclusion of that meeting, Laughman was arrested and charged with the burglary, rape, and murder of Edna Laughman.

Although what happened after the meeting is well documented, what actually occurred during the meeting on September 8, 1987, is disputed to this day. Defendants assert that Laughman confessed and that Blevins reduced the confession to writing. Laughman insists that Blevins and Holtz fabricated a confession and that Laughman simply capitulated to Defendants' repeated inquisitions.

Blevins's handwritten transcription of Laughman's confession spans seven pages, consists of fifty-three questions and answers, and includes the initials of Laughman, Holtz, and Blevins at the bottom of each page. The confession described, at great length and in somewhat graphic detail, the manner in which Edna Laughman was murdered and raped, as well as Laughman's attempt to cover up his actions. For example, the confession depicted the way in which Edna died (suffocation by medication pills) and Laughman's disposal of certain items in a dumpster because "[he] knew the garbage man would come that day." It also includes Laughman's recollection of his "tr[ying] to make it look like an accident," and his robbing her "to cover up her death." It also contained Laughman's explanation that he raped Edna because he "could never ever get a girl."

Laughman maintains that the confession was falsely attributed to him and that the answers in the statement were not his own. He suggests that the confession was created by Holtz and Blevins and that he merely acquiesced in signing it. In support of his position, Laughman proffered an expert's report, which concluded that "[t]he statement attributed to Mr. Laughman contained facts, and some strikingly precise details about the crime scene and victim, that an innocent person could not have known or produced." (R. 35b.) Thus, Laughman argues, because he could not have known of certain details described in the September 8th confession, he simply could not have given such a confession.

On September 9, 1987, Blevins obtained a search warrant authorizing him to obtain a sample of Laughman's blood to compare it against the blood evidence recovered from the crime scene. After conducting tests on Laughman's sample, Roadcap discovered that her findings were inconsistent with her previous findings -- she discovered that Laughman was a "B secretor," not an "A secretor" as she previously determined the perpetrator must likely have been. Nevertheless, the case against Laughman continued.

Judicial proceedings against Laughman began on December 30, 1987, before President Judge Oscar Spicer in the Court of Common Pleas of Adams County. Prosecuting the charges against Laughman was the District Attorney of Adams County, Roy Keefer. Representing Laughman was the Chief Public Defender of Adams County, Jeff Cook. During the pretrial phase, Laughman moved to suppress his confession. Although the court held three separate hearings on Laughman's suppression motion, stretching from December 30, 1987, until September 28, 1988, the court did not resolve the issue of the admissibility of Laughman's confession until a few days before trial, when it was "discovered that the issue was still undecided." (R. 621a, Opinion on Post-Verdict Motions at 5.) At that point, the parties stipulated that factual findings underlying Judge Spicer's decision to allow the introduction of Laughman's confession would be waived until after the trial.

A death-qualified jury heard the evidence against Laughman during a four-day trial from December 12 to December 16, 1988. The jury found Laughman guilty of first-degree murder, rape, robbery, and burglary, and he was sentenced to a term of life imprisonment. Laughman thereafter filed a post-verdict motion in which he asserted, inter alia, that his confession was involuntary and that Roadcap's testimony scientifically excluded Laughman as a suspect. That motion was denied.

In the opinion denying Laughman's post-trial motion, Judge Spicer made a number of post hoc factual findings related to the voluntariness of Laughman's confession. First, Judge Spicer found that:

[Holtz] told [Laughman] he thought he had been in the house and asked if he were [sic] ready to tell the truth. [Laughman] said he had something to say to the police if they would not tell his father. Upon assurances this would not occur, [Laughman] confessed. *** [Laughman] is an unmarried, white male with a full range I.Q. of 70 or 71. He has been steadily employed and is a good worker. He has trouble reading but can understand concepts as difficult as those in the Miranda warnings, if they are explained carefully. Holtz explained [Laughman's] rights carefully and [Laughman] both understood them and expressly waived them.

To summarize, [Laughman] while free of the influence of alcohol or drugs, while understanding the nature of the interrogation, its consequences, and his Miranda rights freely and voluntarily confessed. Guilt, and not police conduct, induced his confession.

(R. 622a.) Judge Spicer also rejected Laughman's position that his "mental acuity prevented him from understanding his rights or making a voluntary statement." (R. 623a.) In doing so, he found that "[a]side from [Laughman's] low I.Q., there is absolutely nothing in this case to justify exclusion of the confession. The police acted carefully and properly. Dr. Levy said that [Laughman] was susceptible to suggestion in tense situations and that all police interrogations involve this. Accepting this as reason to suppress would be tantamount to adopting a per se rule." (R. 625a.) Finally, Judge Spicer commented that he "observed [Laughman] on the stand during the hearing and during trial. He is a miserable reader but otherwise gives the appearance of competence. It was clear from his testimony at the suppression hearing that he couldn't read the Miranda form but had understood it." (R. 625a.)

Judge Spicer also rejected Laughman's contention that Roadcap's testimony exculpated him. In particular, Laughman argued that as a scientific matter Roadcap's testimony regarding the perpetrator's blood type cleared Laughman as a suspect. Judge Spicer disagreed:

Janice Roadcap explained the lack [of B antigens] as possibly being due to drainage, contamination, breakdown or medicine ingestion. Her views were supported by Dr. Robert Wenk. She said her analysis could not exclude [Laughman].

The expert called by [Laughman] cast some doubt on this testimony but fell far short of proving exclusion. Lawrence Koplinsky, Ph.D. said it was unlikely that A antigens would be present but not B antigens. He said no ...


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