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Siehl v. Grace

March 25, 2009


On Appeal From the United States District Court For the Western District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 05-cv-00339J). District Judge: Hon. Kim R. Gibson.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Stapleton, Circuit Judge


Argued February 3, 2009

BEFORE: McKEE and STAPLETON, Circuit Judges, and IRENAS,*fn1 District Judge


Appellant Kevin C. Siehl was convicted of first degree murder after a jury trial in a Pennsylvania state court. Following unsuccessful direct appeal and post-conviction relief proceedings, Siehl instituted this habeas corpus proceeding in the District Court alleging ineffective assistance of trial and appellate counsel. The District Court denied relief, and this appeal followed. We will reverse and remand to the District Court for an evidentiary hearing.


On July 14, 1991, Christine Siehl's landlord received complaints that water was running out of the apartment building. He entered Ms. Siehl's apartment and found her body in the bathtub with the shower running. She had multiple stab wounds which resulted in her death. The time of death was estimated to be between the hours of 11:00 p.m. on July 12 and 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. on July 13. Based on testimony from the mother of a neighbor who heard commotion in the apartment at approximately 1:30 a.m. on July 13, the Commonwealth argued that she was killed at approximately that time.

The bathroom contained indications of a struggle between the victim and the murderer, including blood on the walls and floor, broken mirror pieces, and scattered cat litter. There was no sign of forced entry. Potential suspects in the criminal investigation were: (1) Kevin Siehl, who was married to but living separately from the victim; (2) Frank Wills, with whom the victim had been romantically involved while married to Siehl; and (3) Robert Prebehalla, who told people of his hatred for the victim. According to Sergeant Angelo Cancelliere, Siehl became the prime suspect because a fingerprint on the showerhead and a blood sample from the scene were determined to match Siehl's.

Siehl was arrested and charged with first degree murder, third degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Public defenders David Weaver and Linda Fleming were appointed by the trial court to represent Siehl. They promptly persuaded the court to appoint a forensic expert to assist them in the defense of their client. For reasons that will hereafter become clear, we will refer to their chosen expert as "John Smith." Smith promptly provided counsel with a page and a half "PRELIMINARY ANALYSIS," "the purpose [of which was] to give[] an explanation . . . as to how this crime was committed and to explain certain items of physical evidence." App. at 73. He determined, after reviewing a photograph of the latent print and the fingerprint card of Siehl, that the latent print from the showerhead matched Siehl's. Smith's full discussion of the print was as follows:

This print does match the rolled inked impression on the finger print card bearing the name of Kevin Charles Siehl. See lift photograph and finger print card. It can be stated however, that the print is an exceptionally clear print and not smudged, as one would expect to find in a homicide scenario such as this one. The other thing about this print that is unusual, is that microscopic examination of the shower head, where the print was developed, shows no trace evidence of blood which one would expect to find due to the nature of the crime. It also can be stated that no time frame can be placed on this print as to when it was made. The alleged suspect, Kevin Siehl, had access to this apartment prior to the commission of the crime, therefore, the print could have been made well before the homicide occurred.

App. at 75. Smith's "PRELIMINARY ANALYSIS" did not explain the basis for his preliminary conclusion that the print belonged to Siehl. While it commented on three of the bloodstain evidence items out of the eighty items tested, he did not test the blood evidence and made no findings with respect to the bloodstain which the Commonwealth would maintain was consistent with Siehl's blood. Smith did not prepare any other reports, nor did he testify at trial.

During opening statements, the Commonwealth emphasized that the fingerprint was Siehl's, was a direct piece of evidence that tied Siehl to the murder scene, and was in a position which would indicate that Siehl was outside the shower when the fingerprint was made. The prosecutor also told the jury to pay attention to testimony regarding blood evidence consistent with Siehl's blood type found on the bathroom doorframe.

At trial, Trooper Merril Brant testified that the latent fingerprint on the showerhead matched that of Siehl, and that the position of the print led him to conclude that it was not left by someone showering, but rather was left by the murderer who was standing outside the tub and directed the shower onto Ms. Siehl's body. Brant used the showerhead to demonstrate this theory for the jury. Brant further testified that the print had not yet started to deteriorate, and that therefore it must have been left within 24-36 hours of when the victim was discovered. Prior to this testimony, the jury was read a stipulation of the parties that the fingerprint found on the showerhead belonged to Siehl. Defense counsel did not present expert testimony to counter Brant's testimony regarding the timing and position of the fingerprint.

At trial, Scott Ermlick, the state crime lab supervisor, testified as a serological expert. Ermlick testified that one of the twelve bloodstains recovered from the bathroom was consistent with Siehl's blood group markers, and that none of the blood was consistent with those of Wills or Prebehalla. The stain, which he testified was consistent with Siehl's blood group markers, was one of two small spatters found side-by-side on the bathroom doorframe. He identified the other spatter as consistent with Ms. Siehl's blood group markers. Because the sample was small, no DNA or follow-up testing could be performed. Defense counsel did not present expert testimony to counter Ermlick's findings.

Siehl presented an alibi defense. His father and brother, with whom he was living at the time, and his parents' neighbor all testified. They stated that Ms. Siehl dropped Siehl off at his parents' home at approximately 1:30 a.m. on July 13, and then drove away while ...

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