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Laird v. Horn

July 19, 2005


On Appeal From the United States District Court For the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civ. No. 99-cv-2311) District Judge: Honorable Jan DuBois.

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


Argued September 28, 2004

Before: ROTH, MCKEE AND BARRY Circuit Judges.


The Commonwealth appeals the order of the district court overturning the defendant's death sentence and granting a new trial on his conviction for first-degree murder. As explained in its extremely thorough, comprehensive, and well-reasoned opinion, the district court held that the state trial court erred in instructing the jury on accomplice liability during the guilt phase. See Laird v. Horn, 159 F. Supp. 2d 58, 80-85 (E.D. Pa. 2001). For the reasons that follow, we will affirm.*fn1

I. Factual Background*fn2

Laird and co-defendant, Frank Chester, met the victim, Anthony Milano, in a bar in Bristol Township, Pennsylvania, and all three men left in Milano's car shortly after the bar closed.

Milano's bloodied body was discovered in a wooded area the next evening. His skull had been fractured by a blunt instrument, and his throat and head had numerous lacerations. Some of the wounds had been inflicted with such force, and were sufficiently deep, that they resulted in severing two of Milano's vertebrae. His neck had been lacerated with such force that he was almost decapitated.

Laird and Chester were jointly tried for Milano's murder. During their trial, both defendants took the witness stand and admitted being present when Milano was killed. However, they each denied intending to kill Milano and insisted that the other had inflicted the fatal wounds. The jury convicted both Laird and Chester of murder in the first, second and third degrees as well as kidnaping, aggravated assault, unlawful restraint, false imprisonment, conspiracy, and possession of an instrument of crime.*fn3 At the conclusion of the ensuing penalty phase, the jury sentenced both Laird and Chester to death, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court subsequently affirmed both convictions in a single opinion. Commonwealth v. Chester, 587 A.2d 1367, 1371-72 (Pa. 1991) ("Chester I"). Thereafter, Laird filed a petition for post-conviction relief pursuant to Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act ("PCRA"). That petition was denied, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court also affirmed that decision. Commonwealth v. Laird, 726 A.2d 346 (Pa. 1999) ("Laird I"). Laird then filed the instant habeas petition in district court pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. As we noted at the outset, the district court granted relief, and this appeal followed.

II. State Court Decisions

In deciding the consolidated direct appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was careful to distinguish between "Chester's" allegations, "Laird's" allegations, and issues raised by both Laird and Chester ("appellants"). See generally, Chester I, 587 A.2d at 1373, 1375, 1376, 1377, 1381, and 1382. The Court prefaced its discussion of the trial court's instruction on accomplice liability by stating: "Chester's next allegation relates to the jury instructions on accomplice liability. Appellant submits that counsel was ineffective for failing to object to the trial court's failure to instruct the jury to find specific intent as a prerequisite for accomplice liability." 587 A.2d at 1384 (emphasis added). The Court rejected the argument, quoting the challenged jury instruction as follows:

A person is guilty of a particular crime if he is an accomplice of another person who commits that crime. A defendant does not become an accomplice merely by being present at the same scene or knowing about a crime. He is an accomplice, however, if with the intent of promoting or facilitating commission of a crime he solicits, or commands or encourages or requests the other person to commit it or if he aids, agrees to aid or attempts to aid the other person in planning the crime or committing the crime. However, a defendant is not an accomplice under this concept that I'm explaining to you if before the other person commits the crime he stops his own efforts to promote or facilitate the commission of the crime. You may find the defendant guilty of a particular crime on the theory that he was an accomplice so long as you are satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that the crime was committed and the defendant was an accomplice of the person who committed it. All right. That is the accomplice theory of liability.

Id. The Court concluded that the instruction mirrored Pennsylvania's statute on accomplice liability and held that it was not erroneous. In reaching that conclusion, the Court noted that it was rejecting "Chester's . . . allegation[]" challenging the instruction. The Court thus realized that Chester was challenging the jury instruction on direct appeal, not Laird.

Nevertheless, when it thereafter affirmed the denial of Laird's PCRA petition and the challenge to the instruction he raised there, the state supreme court stated:

This issue was presented on direct appeal as an allegation of ineffectiveness of trial counsel for failure to object to the charge as given. The allegation of error was denied as the charge was found to properly set forth the elements of accomplice liability. Laird, 587 A.2d at 1384. Petitioner attempts to relitigate this claim by attacking appellate counsel's ineffectiveness for failing to prevail on this claim in the direct appeal. Post-conviction relief cannot be obtained on a previously litigated claim merely by arguing appellate counsel's ineffectiveness and presenting new theories of relief.

Laird I, 726 A.2d at 354. However, as we have just explained, that claim was only raised by the co-defendant, Chester, on direct appeal. Thus, in resolving Laird's habeas petition, the district court correctly concluded that Laird's claim had not been adjudicated on the merits by the state courts.

III. District Court Decision

In the district court, Laird argued that the instruction on accomplice liability denied him due process of law because it relieved the prosecution of its burden of proving each element of first degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt. The Commonwealth argued that Laird's due process claim was procedurally defaulted because he had not raised it on direct appeal. The district court rejected the Commonwealth's position and held that the "relaxed waiver rule" in effect at the time of Laird's direct appeal precluded finding a procedural default. 159 F. Supp. 2d at 81. Accordingly, the district court held that the deferential standard established by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act ("AEDPA") did not apply because the state courts had refused to review the claim on the merits. The district court then analyzed the accomplice liability charge under the pre-AEDPA standard and held that it was "reasonably likely to lead the jury to conclude that it need only find that ...

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