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Lesko v. Lehman

filed: February 11, 1991.


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania; D.C. Civil Action No. 86-01238.

Higginbotham, Mansmann and Cowen, Circuit Judges.

Author: Higginbotham



Appellant John Charles Lesko was convicted and sentenced to death by the Westmoreland County Court of Common Pleas for the murder of Leonard Miller, an officer of the Apollo, Pennsylvania police department. This is the second appeal involving Lesko's petition for a writ of habeas corpus. On July 27, 1989, we reversed the district court's issuance of the writ, holding that Lesko was not deprived of a fair trial by the introduction at trial of evidence of his role in the prior murder of William Nicholls. We remanded for consideration of Lesko's other habeas claims. Lesko v. Owens, 881 F.2d 44 (3d Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 1036, 110 S. Ct. 759, 107 L. Ed. 2d 775 (1990). On remand, the district court dismissed Lesko's habeas petition after considering and rejecting those other claims.

We now hold that the district court erred in failing to hold an evidentiary hearing on Lesko's claim that the introduction of evidence of his guilty plea to the Nicholls murder at the penalty phase of his trial violated his due process rights. We also hold that the jury's sentencing determination was tainted by improper prosecutorial comments during the penalty phase. Accordingly, we will reverse and remand to the district court for the issuance of a conditional writ of habeas corpus insofar as Lesko's death sentence is concerned. We will affirm the dismissal of the petition insofar as Lesko challenges the jury's guilty verdict, as we find no errors of constitutional significance in the determination of Lesko's guilt.


In our prior opinion, we summarized the facts underlying Lesko's conviction and death sentence.

In the early hours of January 3, 1980, John Lesko, Michael Travaglia and Richard Rutherford were cruising the outskirts of the city of Pittsburgh in a stolen sports car. The trio drove past police officer Leonard Miller, sitting in his patrol car parked at the side of the road outside the Stop-and-Go convenience store. Travaglia, the driver of the car, stated that he "wanted to have some fun with this cop." Travaglia raced past the officer's car beeping his horn, but no pursuit followed. Travaglia turned the car around, again sped past the patrol car, and again failed to elicit a response. The third time Travaglia sped past, Officer Miller turned on his lights and gave chase. Lesko turned to Rutherford in the back seat and cautioned him to "lay down in the back, because it might turn into a shooting gallery."

A moment later, Officer Miller managed to force the sports car off the side of the road. The officer approached the car on foot. Travaglia rolled down his window, extended his .38 caliber hand gun, and shot Officer Miller twice from close range. Officer Miller returned fire, shattering the passenger side of the window. The three companions sped away. The gunshot wounds Officer Miller received proved fatal.

The trio had begun their escapade together a few hours earlier, in the late evening of January 2, 1980, at a hot dog shop in Pittsburgh. At Travaglia's instruction, Lesko and Rutherford went to the alleyway behind the Edison Hotel, and waited. About ten minutes later a sports car appeared. Travaglia sat in the front seat beside the driver and owner of the car, William Nicholls, a stranger. While Lesko and Rutherford were climbing into the back seat, Travaglia pulled out a .22 caliber hand gun and shot Nicholls in the arm.

After Travaglia took the driver's seat, Lesko told Rutherford to handcuff Nicholls behind the back. As Travaglia drove, Lesko repeatedly punched Nicholls in the face and chest, calling him a queer. Lesko asked Nicholls if he wanted to perform oral sex on him, and taunted him with a knife. Meanwhile, Lesko took Nicholls's belongings, a wallet and an extra set of keys, and told Rutherford to place them in the glove compartment. After Nicholls lost consciousness, Rutherford and Lesko gagged him with a scarf. Travaglia stopped the car near a lake in a wooded area. Lesko propped Nicholls against a nearby tree, his hands cuffed, his mouth gagged, and his feet bound with a belt. Travaglia and Lesko dragged Nicholls down to the lake and rolled him into the water, where he disappeared.

The three men drove to Travaglia's father's house, where Travaglia knew his father kept a gun. Lesko and Rutherford waited in the car while Travaglia entered the house. Travaglia returned with a .38 caliber handgun, which he handed to Lesko. Upon inspection, Lesko discovered that it contained only bird shot. Travaglia, who had begun driving away, turned the car around and returned to his father's house. Travaglia instructed Rutherford to retrieve the box of bullets lying in the trunk of the car parked inside the garage. Lesko stood guard outside. Armed with the gun that had wounded Nicholls, Lesko warned Rutherford that if anything went wrong, Rutherford "had six shots to get out." Rutherford returned with the box of bullets, and the trio drove off. It was these bullets that killed Officer Miller.

After the Miller shooting, Lesko and Travaglia returned to Pittsburgh. At the hot dog shop they met a friend, Keith Montgomery, whom they took to a room in the Edison Hotel and told about the Miller shooting. Travaglia told Montgomery, "I shot a cop." Lesko added, "I wanted to." Travaglia then gave Montgomery the .38 caliber gun used to shoot Officer Miller. When the Pittsburgh police found Montgomery with that same gun later that evening, Montgomery told the police how he had gotten the gun, and that it had been used to shoot a policeman. Lesko and Travaglia were arrested that night. Before surrendering, Lesko pointed a gun at the police.

After receiving Miranda warnings, Lesko and Travaglia each gave statements admitting involvement in the killing of Officer Miller. Lesko told the police that he and Travaglia had instigated the car chase with Officer Miller, "So he'd be chasing us . . . and the car was fast and that -- we'd lose him and could go and knock off the Stop-N-Go." In contrast, Travaglia told the police that he was "playing around with [Officer Miller], trying to aggravate him, and I figured he couldn't chase me across county lines; and since he did, I figured if I pointed the gun at him and told him to throw his gun away, he couldn't stop me and I could keep on going. In the process of pulling the gun on him, the hammer slipped and the shot discharged." Lesko and Travaglia also admitted killing William Nicholls.

Lesko, 881 F.2d at 46-47.

After their capture, Lesko and Travaglia faced murder charges in the Court of Common Pleas of Indiana County for the Nicholls homicide and in the Court of Common Pleas of Westmoreland County for the Miller homicide. Lesko was represented at all relevant periods in the Indiana County proceedings by John Armstrong. He was represented throughout the Westmoreland County proceedings by his present counsel.

A. Indiana County Guilty Plea

On May 19, 1980, Lesko pled guilty in Indiana County to second degree murder. No written record of a plea agreement exists, but Armstrong and the Indiana County prosecutor stated at the plea hearing that Lesko's guilty plea was made with the understanding that the other charges related to the Nicholls murder would be dismissed and that sentencing on the murder charge would be delayed until "late June." Record of Guilty Plea Proceedings (May 19, 1980) at 32. Although the parties now disagree about the purposes underlying the agreement to defer sentencing, it is undisputed that, as a minimum, Armstrong and the prosecutor intended that sentencing be delayed until the conclusion of Lesko's trial in Westmoreland County.*fn1 On December 3, 1980, before a sentence had been imposed, Armstrong filed a motion to withdraw Lesko's Indiana County guilty plea, stating that his client wished to stand trial for the charges related to the Nicholls homicide.

B. Westmoreland County Proceedings

In January 1981, Lesko and Travaglia were tried jointly in Westmoreland County for the Miller homicide. We have previously summarized the guilt phase of this trial.

At trial, Lesko and Travaglia's sole defense to the charge of first degree murder was that they each lacked the requisite intent to kill. Lesko's counsel argued principally that his client was at most guilty of felony-murder. He argued that in instigating the police chase, defendants planned first to divert the officer from the Stop-and-Go store, and later return to rob the establishment. Therefore, Lesko's lawyer urged, the killing was not pre-meditated, but was the unintended result of a botched robbery attempt. Travaglia's lawyer, meanwhile, emphasized that pulling the trigger had been accidental, a result of the hammer of the gun having slipped as Travaglia aimed at the officer. Neither defendant testified at the guilt phase of the trial. However, statements they made in their taped confessions to the police, which the Commonwealth introduced into evidence, were relied on by defense counsel in support of their respective defense theories.

Lesko, 881 F.2d at 47-48.

Rutherford was the Commonwealth's principal witness at trial. Over defense objections, Rutherford testified about both defendants' roles in the abduction and killing of Nicholls and in the events surrounding the Miller homicide.

On January 30, 1981, the jury found Lesko and Travaglia guilty of murder in the first degree and criminal conspiracy to commit murder. Pursuant to the jury trial procedure specified in Pennsylvania's death penalty statute, 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 9711(a), the trial then proceeded to its penalty phase. The prosecution introduced as a statutory "aggravating circumstance" the fact that defendants had pled guilty in Indiana County to the Nicholls murder.*fn2 Counsel for both defendants objected to this testimony on the grounds that the Indiana County convictions were not "final" because sentences had not yet been imposed, and that both men had pled guilty with the understanding that their pleas could not be used against them in the Westmoreland County trial. Trial Transcript ("Tr.") at 1338-39. Lesko's counsel also objected on the basis of his client's still pending motion in Indiana County to withdraw his guilty plea. Tr. at 1404, 1427-29. The trial court denied counsel's motion for an evidentiary hearing on the status of that motion. Tr. at 1429.

Lesko introduced mitigating testimony from his mother, aunt, former girlfriend, and his former girlfriend's mother about his background and character. Tr. at 1627-49. He also provided testimony of a biographical nature. He testified that he never knew his father, and that his mother gave him up to an orphanage when he was seven or eight years old. When he was fourteen, he was returned to his grandmother. He recalled that he had attended a number of schools and was a "straight A" student in the eleventh grade, after which he enlisted in the Marine Corps. He served in the Marines from March 1976 until his administrative discharge in December 1978. He returned to the Pittsburgh area, where he "bounced from job to job." He testified that he first met Michael Travaglia in late November 1979. He was not asked about, and did not discuss, the events surrounding the Nicholls and Miller murders. The prosecutor did not cross-examine Lesko.*fn3 Tr. at 1651-62.

On February 3, 1981, the jury returned death verdicts against both defendants. As to Lesko, the jury found both aggravating circumstances offered by the prosecution and further found that the aggravating circumstances outweighed the mitigating circumstances.

On direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Lesko argued that the Commonwealth had breached the Indiana County plea agreement by introducing evidence of the plea as an aggravating circumstance. However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court did not discuss this issue in its majority opinion and order affirming both defendants' convictions and sentences. Commonwealth v. Travaglia, 502 Pa. 474, 467 A.2d 288 (1983), cert. denied, 467 U.S. 1256, 104 S. Ct. 3547, 82 L. Ed. 2d 850 (1984); but see 502 Pa. at 507-08, 467 A.2d at 305 (Nix, J., concurring) ("I . . . join in the Court's mandate today with the caveat that the death penalty will be carried out only after a review of [the challenges to the pleas] by this Court and only if after such review it is determined that the pleas were voluntarily and knowingly entered and the request for withdrawal was properly refused.").

C. Indiana County Post-Guilty Plea Proceedings

On April 13, 1981, Armstrong filed an amended motion to withdraw Lesko's Indiana County guilty plea, asserting, inter alia, that an essential element of this plea agreement was "the Commonwealth's assurance that he would not be sentenced until after the trials in Westmoreland County. Implicit in this expressed promise by the Commonwealth was the fact that this plea in Indiana County couldn't be used in the trial or sentence in Westmoreland County."

The Indiana County court held a hearing on this motion on April 28, 1981. Lesko did not testify at this hearing. Armstrong also did not testify.*fn4 However, during the hearing Armstrong argued that "implicit" in counsel's agreement to defer sentencing in Indiana County was the understanding that the plea would not be used against Lesko at the Westmoreland County trial. Record of Proceedings on Motion to Withdraw Guilty Plea (April 28, 1981) at 9. Armstrong also acknowledged that he believed that until sentence was imposed, Lesko's guilty plea did not constitute a "conviction" and thus could not be introduced at the Westmoreland trial. Id. at 6-7.*fn5

On June 5, 1981, the court denied Lesko's motion to withdraw his guilty plea. It is evident from the court's "Finding of Facts" that its decision was based on its conclusion that the colloquy at the May 19, 1980 plea hearing embodied the entire plea agreement. The court found that "the promise in the instant case was that the defendant's sentence for second degree murder would be delayed; there was no promise on behalf of the Commonwealth, nor request by the defendant, that evidence of the defendant's Indiana County guilty plea would not be used against him at other trials." Opinion and Order of the Court (June 5, 1981) at 7.

On appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed Lesko's Indiana County conviction, holding that Armstrong was not ineffective for advising Lesko to plead guilty. The court also upheld the trial court's denial of Lesko's motion to withdraw the guilty plea. Commonwealth v. Lesko, 502 Pa. 511, 467 A.2d 307 (1983), cert. denied, 467 U.S. 1256, 104 S. Ct. 3547, 82 L. Ed. 2d 850 (1984). Again, the court's decision was premised on the fact that the plea colloquy did not reveal a promise by the Commonwealth not to use the guilty plea at the Westmoreland County trial. 502 Pa. at 518, 467 A.2d at 310.

D. PCHA Proceedings

On April 15, 1985, Lesko filed in Indiana County a petition under Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Hearing Act ("PCHA"), 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §§ 9541-9551, alleging that Armstrong was ineffective for advising him that his guilty plea could not be used as an aggravating circumstance. On April 23, 1985, this petition was denied without a hearing on the ground that this issue had been determined in the direct appeal from the Indiana County conviction. Commonwealth v. Lesko, No. 35 Crim., 1980 (Indiana Co. Ct. Common Pleas April 23, 1985), appeal quashed as untimely, 357 Pa. Super. 636, 513 A.2d 1077 (1986), allocatur denied, 513 Pa. 639, 521 A.2d 931 (1987).

Lesko also raised his guilty plea issue in a PCHA petition filed in Westmoreland County. The trial court convened a hearing on this petition on January 28, 1985, but rejected Lesko's proffer of testimony from Armstrong about his plea negotiations with the Indiana County district attorney and about his conversations with Lesko concerning the terms of the plea agreement. Post Conviction Hearing Proceeding Transcript (April 23, 1985) at 3-4, 7-14.*fn6 The court specifically rejected counsel's attempt to raise the "new issue" of whether there was "an understanding between counsel and the basis of the defendant's plea [sic] that the guilty plea in Indiana County would not be introduced in Westmoreland County." Id. at 8. The court considered that the proffered testimony was irrelevant because the Westmoreland County court was not bound by the terms of the Indiana County plea agreement. The court also believed that the guilty plea issue was finally litigated in the direct appeal from the Indiana County conviction.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the denial of Lesko's Westmoreland County PCHA petition. Commonwealth v. Lesko, 509 Pa. 67, 501 A.2d 200 (1985), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 1101, 107 S. Ct. 1328, 94 L. Ed. 2d 179 (1987). The Court determined that Lesko's argument that he "believed" the plea could not be used against him in Westmoreland County was a mere "variant" of the argument that Armstrong had made in his motion to withdraw the guilty plea -- namely, that the commitment not to introduce the plea in Westmoreland County was an "implicit" term of the plea agreement. The court agreed with the trial court that this issue had been finally determined in the direct appeal from Lesko's Indiana County conviction, stating that "the terms of the bargain do not contain the agreement appellant now says he 'believed' was 'implicit' in it." 509 Pa. at 85, 501 A.2d at 208-09.

E. Habeas Corpus Proceedings

On June 11, 1986, Lesko filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. On May 2, 1988, the district court issued the writ, holding that Lesko's right to a fair trial was violated by the introduction of extensive evidence of Lesko's role in the Nicholls murder. Lesko v. Jeffes , 689 F. Supp. 508 (W.D. Pa. 1988). On appeal, this court reversed, concluding that evidence relating to the Nicholls murder was relevant to show motive and intent, and that its prejudicial effect did not so outweigh its probative value that its admission denied Lesko a fair trial. Lesko v. Owens, 881 F.2d 44 (3d Cir. 1989), cert. denied, 493 U.S. 1036, 110 S. Ct. 759, 107 L. Ed. 2d 775 (1990). We remanded the case to the district court for resolution of the remaining issues raised by Lesko's habeas petition.

On remand, the district court referred the matter to a United States Magistrate, who filed a report and recommendation rejecting the balance of Lesko's habeas claims. On April 12, 1990, the district court approved and adopted the magistrate's report, dismissed the habeas petition, and granted a certificate of probable cause to appeal. This appeal followed.

We have subject matter jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 2254, and appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. This court has already determined that Lesko has exhausted his state court remedies. Lesko, 881 F.2d at 50.*fn7

II. Discussion

Lesko raises the following issues in this appeal:

1. Whether he is entitled to an evidentiary hearing on his claim that the introduction of his Indiana County guilty plea at the penalty phase of the Westmoreland County trial violated due process, because he had allegedly pled guilty with the understanding that his plea would not be used against him at trial;

2. Whether the exclusion for cause of a veniremember who expressed her personal opposition to the death penalty during voir dire violated Witherspoon v. Illinois, 391 U.S. 510, 88 S. Ct. 1770, 20 L. Ed. 2d 776 (1968);

3. Whether certain remarks in the prosecutor's closing argument in the penalty phase of the trial constituted an improper and inflammatory "appeal to vengeance";

4. Whether certain remarks in the prosecutor's closing argument in the penalty phase of the trial constituted an impermissible comment on Lesko's failure to testify on the merits of the charges against him;

5. Whether the trial court erred in instructing the jury that it should not consider sympathy in its penalty determination;

6. Whether the death penalty for Lesko, a non-triggerman accomplice to the murder of Officer Miller, is an unconstitutionally disproportionate penalty;

7. Whether the Pennsylvania death penalty statute is unconstitutional as applied because the jury is allowed to return a verdict on non-capital degrees of homicide (in this case, voluntary manslaughter) "even when there is no evidence to sustain such a verdict";

8. Whether the Pennsylvania death penalty statute is unconstitutional because it requires the defendant to establish the existence of mitigating circumstances by a preponderance of the evidence; and

9. Whether the trial court erred in allowing the jury to hear "gruesome details" of Lesko's role in the Nicholls homicide.

A. Scope of Review

We recently summarized the scope of our review of a district court decision which denies a habeas petition without a hearing.

Our scope of review is limited as we sit not to retry state cases de novo but rather to examine the proceedings in the state court to determine if there has been a violation of federal constitutional standards. Milton v. Wainwright, 407 U.S. 371, 377, 92 S. Ct. 2174, 33 L. Ed. 2d 1 (1972). Accordingly, we do not exercise the supervisory power that we might possess on an appeal from a conviction in the district court. Donnelly v. DeChristoforo, 416 U.S. 637, 642-43, 94 S. Ct. 1868, 40 L. Ed. 2d 431 (1974). Where, as here, a district court has denied a petition for habeas corpus without holding an evidentiary hearing, our review consists of a two-step analysis. Smith v. Freeman, 892 F.2d 331, 338 (3d Cir. 1989) (citing Toomey v. Clark, 876 F.2d 1433, 1435 (9th Cir. 1989)). First, we determine whether the petitioner has alleged facts that, if proved, would entitle him to relief. Smith, 892 F.2d at 338 (citing Townsend v. Sain, 372 U.S. 293, 312, 83 S. Ct. 745, 9 L. Ed. 2d 770 (1963); Toomey, 876 F.2d at 1435). If so, we must then decide whether an evidentiary hearing is necessary to establish the truth of those allegations. Smith, 892 F.2d at 338 (citing Townsend, 372 U.S. at 312-19; Toomey, 876 F.2d at 1435).

Zettlemoyer v. Fulcomer, 923 F.2d 284, slip op. at 11-12 (3d Cir. Jan. 16, 1991). Our review of the district court's decision in this case is plenary, as the dismissal of the habeas petition was based on the state court record, and not on independent factfinding by the district court. Id. [Slip Op.] at 11 n.5.

Applying these standards, we conclude that the district court erred in failing to hold an evidentiary hearing on Lesko's guilty plea claim (Issue 1), and in rejecting his claims based on the prosecutor's closing argument. (Issues 3 and 4). We agree with ...

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