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Wilson v. Beard

December 23, 2009


On Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (D.C. Civil Action No. 05-cv-02667) District Judge: Honorable John R. Padova.

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


Argued on March 20, 2009

Before: McKEE, CHAGARES and ROTH, Circuit Judges.


In 1988, Zachary Wilson was convicted of the 1981 murder of Jamie Lamb, who was shot in a bar in the City of Philadelphia. Wilson was sentenced to death. During his post-conviction relief proceedings, he learned that the Commonwealth had withheld certain information from his counsel during trial that could have been used for impeachment purposes. He asserts that the Commonwealth thereby violated his right to due process as set forth in Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). After relief was denied by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Wilson filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, raising thirteen claims for relief. The District Court held a hearing solely on his Brady claim and, concluding that a violation of Brady had occurred, granted Wilson's request for habeas relief, vacated his conviction, and allowed the Commonwealth 180 days in which to retry him. For the reasons set forth below, we will affirm the judgment of the District Court.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

The factual background is taken from the opinions of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the District Court. See Commonwealth v. Wilson, 649 A.2d 435 (Pa. 1994) (direct appeal proceedings) (Wilson I); Commonwealth v. Wilson, 861 A.2d 919 (Pa. 2004) (appeal of post-conviction relief proceedings) (Wilson II); and Wilson v. Beard, Civ. No. 05-2667, 2006 WL 2346277 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 6, 2006) (federal habeas corpus proceedings) (Wilson III). The relevant facts are not in dispute.

On August 3, 1981, a man entered a bar in the City of Philadelphia and "pulled a gun from under his coat as he walked past several patrons sitting at the bar. He aimed the gun at the victim, Lamb, who was sitting at the rear of the bar. After shooting the victim four times, [the man] fled the scene. The victim subsequently died from injuries caused by multiple gunshot wounds." Wilson I, 649 A.2d at 440. The shooter was later identified by two eyewitnesses, Jeffrey Rahming and Edward Jackson, as Wilson.

According to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court:

A Commonwealth witness, Jeffrey Rahming, was in the rear of the bar, standing just behind the victim when the shooting started. Rahming saw Appellant enter the bar, aim the gun at the victim, and shoot the gun.

A second Commonwealth witness, Edward Jackson, was sitting at the front of the bar when Appellant entered. He, as well as many other patrons, dove to the floor as the gunfire began. When Appellant rushed to leave the bar, he tripped over Jackson and fell to the floor. Jackson and Appellant came face to face before Appellant scrambled to his feet and ran out of the bar.


Both Jackson and Rahming described the gunman to police and attended a police lineup in March 1982. At the lineup, Rahming identified Wilson as the gunman but Jackson did not. Wilson was charged with Lamb's murder, but the charges were dismissed when Rahming failed to identify Wilson at the initial preliminary hearing.

Wilson was later incarcerated on unrelated charges. In the summer of 1984, Lawrence Gainer told Philadelphia Police Officer John Fleming that in October 1983, when he and Wilson were incarcerated together, he asked Wilson why he killed Lamb and Wilson responded that he killed Lamb "because Lamb had killed [his] adopted brother, Ronnie Williams." Gainer refused to cooperate further at that time. However, Gainer again spoke to Officer Fleming in March 1986, at which time he agreed to provide a statement to the detectives investigating the homicide. Based on Gainer's statement, Wilson was re-arrested and charged a second time with Lamb's murder.

On January 5, 1988, Wilson's trial began in the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas before Judge Alfred F. Sabo. The Commonwealth's case was based almost entirely on the testimony of Jackson, Rahming, and Gainer. The jury returned its verdict on January 7, 1988, finding Wilson guilty of first degree murder and possession of an instrument of crime. The court held a penalty hearing on January 11, 1988. The jury found two aggravating circumstances -- a significant history of violent felony convictions and the knowing creation of a grave risk of death to others -- and no mitigating circumstances, and returned a sentence of death. On January 25, 1988, Judge Sabo sentenced Wilson to death and a term of imprisonment of 2.5 to 5 years.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed Wilson's conviction and sentence, and the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari. See Wilson v. Pennsylvania, 516 U.S. 850 (1995). Through counsel, Wilson then filed a petition pursuant to the Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). See 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § 9541 et seq. In his PCRA petition, Wilson alleged that the prosecution withheld evidence demonstrating that Officer Fleming coerced and threatened Gainer and Rahming into falsely incriminating Wilson and that Detective Keenan exerted undue and improper influence over Jackson in order to obtain his false testimony against Wilson. The scope and nature of Wilson's Brady claim changed during the course of the PCRA proceedings, as Wilson learned that Jackson had an undisclosed prior criminal conviction for impersonating a police officer, that both Jackson and Rahming had prior mental health diagnoses relevant to their abilities to accurately experience and recall events, and that Officer Fleming had made interest-free loans to Gainer during the time that Gainer acted as a police informant. At the instruction of the PCRA court, Wilson filed a "Post-PCRA Hearing Memorandum" in which he set out all of these bases for his Brady claim.

On May 6, 1998, the PCRA court denied Wilson's PCRA petition, issuing a written opinion on September 23, 1999, in which it did not address Wilson's Brady claim at all. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court affirmed the denial of PCRA relief on November 19, 2004, holding that Wilson had waived his Brady claim by failing to include it in his original PCRA petition or to seek leave to amend his petition to include such a claim. Accordingly, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to address this claim on merits.

On June 6, 2005, Wilson filed the underlying petition for a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254. The petition contained thirteen claims for relief, only one of which is at issue in the instant appeal. In Claim I, Wilson asserts that the prosecution violated his right to due process as set out in Brady by failing to turn over evidence to defense counsel that could have been used to impeach Jackson, Rahming, and Gainer and to undercut the prosecution's case against him. After extensive briefing and oral argument on this issue, the District Court agreed and granted relief, vacating Wilson's conviction and allowing the Commonwealth 180 days to retry him.

II. Jurisdiction

The District Court had jurisdiction over this case under 28 U.S.C. §§ 2241 and 2254. We have appellate jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. §§ 1291 and 2253. The Commonwealth is not required to obtain a certificate of appealability in order to appeal the District Court's decision to grant Wilson's petition for a writ of habeas corpus. See Cristin v. Brennan, 281 F.3d 404, 409 (3d Cir. 2002) (citing Fed. R. App. P. 22(b)(3)).

III. Standard of Review

Because the facts underlying the Brady issue are not in dispute, our review of the District Court's decision on that issue is plenary.*fn1 See Duncan v. Morton, 256 F.3d 189, 196 (3d Cir. 2001). Wilson's petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed after April 1996 and is therefore subject to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA). See 28 U.S.C. § 2241 et seq. Under AEDPA,

An application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States; or (2) resulted in a decision that was based on an unreasonable determination of the facts in light of the evidence presented in the State court proceeding.

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1). Because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that Wilson's Brady claim was waived, it did not reach the merits of the claim. Accordingly, there was no state-level adjudication on the merits to which the District Court had to defer. See id.; see also Bronshtein v. Horn, 404 F.3d 700, 710 n.4 (3d Cir. 2005). The District Court therefore reviewed this claim de novo. See Appel v. Horn, 250 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2001). Because we agree ...

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