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Lazar v. Coleman

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

March 1, 2017

STEVEN LAZAR, Petitioner,
BRIAN V. COLEMAN, Respondent.


          Gerald Austin McHugh United States District Judge.

         Judicial recognition of a confession's power as evidence dates back centuries: “[A] free and voluntary confession is deserving of the highest credit, because it is presumed to flow from the strongest sense of guilt; and therefore it is admitted as proof of the crime to which it refers.” King v. Warickshall (1783) 168 Eng. Rep. 234, 234-35 (KB). Modern courts still recognize that a “confession is like no other evidence.” Arizona v. Fulminante, 499 U.S. 279, 296 (1991). In this habeas case, Petitioner Steven Lazar was interrogated by police over a 30-hour period about a homicide, giving two different accounts of the crime. The second account, which was critical to Lazar's ultimate conviction for felony murder, was given while Lazar was in acute methadone withdrawal. At trial, both the jury and court were unaware of this, because, unfortunately, defense counsel stipulated that Lazar had not taken a daily dose of methadone for a month prior to the interrogation. In fact Lazar had taken methadone a mere 24 hours before.

         Given that incorrect stipulation, it is hardly surprising that on collateral review the state courts found Lazar's trial counsel's performance deficient, satisfying the first of two elements of an ineffective-assistance claim under Strickland v. Washington, 466 U.S. 668 (1984). But the courts decided that the second element-prejudice-had not been met, and therefore denied relief. The well-reasoned Report and Recommendation of United States Magistrate Judge M. Faith Angell also concludes that federal relief should be denied. I am constrained to agree with Judge Angell and will adopt that part of her Recommendation. But I base my denial of relief solely on the exceedingly deferential framework imposed on me by 28 U.S.C. § 2254(d). And I write separately to stress my serious concern about the state courts' prejudice analysis and to explain why I will grant a certificate of appealability.

         I. Background

         A. Facts at Trial

         In January 2007, an elderly man was found in his North Philadelphia home hacked to death. His wallet and keys were missing and his drawers ransacked. The case went unsolved at first, but a few months later, the victim's daughter, while cleaning out the back porch of her father's home, found a bag with several items linked to Lazar: a letter to him from a methadone clinic, a yearbook with his photograph, his social security card, and an access card in his name. When police brought Lazar in for questioning, he told them his friend had taken his bag and given it to another man. Lazar was released.

         But over the next several months, Lazar made statements to others that seemed to implicate him in the murder. For example, he told two of his neighbors that he would be going to jail because he had “killed somebody with an axe, ” and he told one of his friends that “if you are going to kill somebody, ” the “best weapon to use . . . [is] a hatchet.” He made similar statements to two other individuals. All five testified at trial. (As discussed in more detail below, each was impeached to some degree, and none would be considered a pristine witness for the prosecution.) That November, after the friend contacted police about what Lazar had told him, homicide detectives interrogated Lazar over a 30-hour period.

         During the interrogation, Lazar gave two statements. First, at 7:20 PM on November 19 (the first day of the interrogation) he said that on the night of the murder, he and a friend (“John”) had been doing drugs in an abandoned house near the victim's. John had a hatchet and talked about robbing the victim. After police drove by, the two briefly separated, and Lazar then went into the victim's home to look for John. He found John covered in blood, ransacking the drawers, and the victim dead. But Lazar's second statement, given at 2:45 PM on November 20, told a different story. In this version, he and John had gone to the victim's house to perform oral sex on him-which, after John pulled a hatchet out to threaten the victim, they did. When the victim tried to reciprocate, Lazar hit the victim with his hand, and John hit the victim with the hatchet. John then took the victim's wallet and went through his drawers.

         The jury convicted Lazar of second-degree murder, robbery, and possession of an instrument of crime.

         B. Essential Facts of Lazar's Strickland Claim

         At trial, Lazar's counsel stipulated that Lazar, a known methadone user, had last taken a daily dose of methadone on October 24, nearly a month before the interrogation. That stipulation was wrong, in a significant way: Lazar had actually last taken methadone at 10:34 AM on November 18, the day before the interrogation began.[1] And shortly after giving the second statement, Lazar complained of painful urination and was taken to the hospital, where he reported leg pain, shaking, dizziness, nausea, and diarrhea, and blood tests were positive for multiple anti-withdrawal benzodiazepines, cocaine, and marijuana. Notations in the hospital records, however, painted a slight contrast, describing Lazar's appearance as “neat and appropriate” and “oriented, ” his demeanor “irritable but cooperative, ” and his speech “normal in tone, rate, and rhythm.” PCRA Hr'g Tr. (Tr.) 12:23-13:5. He was diagnosed with depression and hypertension and discharged that night after being treated with anti-withdrawal drugs.[2]

         C. State-Court Collateral Review

         On post-conviction review of Lazar's Strickland claim, the state trial court agreed with Lazar that his counsel was deficient in making the methadone-dosage-date stipulation, but found there was no prejudice. In addition to considering the evidence before the jury, the court heard competing expert testimony on the effects of methadone withdrawal and observational testimony from the interrogating detectives.

         Both experts agreed that an individual suffering from withdrawal could still give a voluntary statement, but they disagreed about how fast withdrawal symptoms (such as nausea, runny eyes and nose, and restlessness) set in: Lazar's expert said it happened within a 24-36 hour window, while the Commonwealth's expert said it took longer, up to 50 hours. The detectives, for their part, testified that Lazar did not appear sick just ...

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