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Media Alerts - Han Lee v. Superintendent Houtzdale SCI - Third Circuit
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August 21, 2015
  Han Lee v. Superintendent Houtzdale SCI - Third Circuit
Headline: Habeas Relief Granted Where Admission of Scientific Evidence That Has Been Discredited by Subsequent Scientific Developments Undermined the Fundamental Fairness of the Entire Trial and the Commonwealth Did Not Provide Ample Other Evidence of Guilt

Area of Law: Criminal

Issues Presented:
1. Did the admission of fire-science and gas chromatography evidence that has since been discredited by subsequent scientific developments undermine the fundamental fairness of the entire trial because its probative value was greatly outweighed by the prejudice to Lee?
2. Did the Commonwealth provide ample other evidence of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt?

Brief Summary:
Appellee Han Tak Lee was convicted of murdering his daughter based primarily on scientific evidence that has been discredited by subsequent scientific developments since his trial in 1990. Lee filed a §2254 habeas petition claiming that his conviction and continued incarceration violate due process. The District Court granted habeas relief.
The Third Circuit Court affirms. The Court finds that the admission of the now-debunked fire-science and gas chromatography evidence undermined the fundamental fairness of the entire trial, and that the three sources of remaining evidence that the Commonwealth provided are not sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Accordingly, the Court holds that the District Court did not commit plain error by granting habeas relief.

Extended Summary:
Han Tak Lee's daughter, Ji Yun Lee, suffered from severe mental illness throughout her life. After she had a manic episode in July 1989, Han Tak Lee took his daughter to a religious retreat in Monroe County, Pennsylvania. Soon after arriving, Ji Yun went for a walk and returned several hours later soaking wet because she had jumped into a body of water. Later that day, she became agitated and had to be physically restrained. That night a fire began in the Lees' cabin. Han Tak escaped, but his daughter died.
The Commonwealth charged Han Tak Lee with arson and murder. During the eight-day trial, the Commonwealth relied heavily on fire science and gas chromatography evidence to argue that Lee intentionally set the fire to kill his daughter. The defense countered that Ji Yun set the fire as a suicidal act. Lee was convicted on both charges and sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
During an evidentiary hearing on ineffective-assistance-of-counsel claims, the court received evidence about developments in the field of fire science that the panel stated "provided ample reason to question the reliability of the arson investigation." The state court nonetheless denied Lee's claims.
Lee later filed a §2254 habeas petition claiming that (1) his conviction violated due process because it was based on inaccurate and unreliable evidence, and (2) his continued incarceration also lacked due process because newly developed scientific evidence showed he was probably innocent. After the District Court denied Lee's petition and request for an evidentiary hearing, a panel of the Third Circuit Court reversed and ordered the District Court to grant discovery and then reconsider whether to hold an evidentiary hearing. The Court instructed that Lee "must show that the admission of the fire expert testimony undermined the fundamental fairness of the entire trial" because its probative value is greatly outweighed by the prejudice to Lee. The Court also implied that habeas relief should be denied if there is "ample other evidence of guilt."
On remand, following the evidentiary hearing, the Magistrate Judge issued a Report & Recommendation (R&R) finding that the admission of the fire expert testimony undermined the fundamental fairness of the entire trial because the "verdict rest[ed] almost entirely upon scientific pillars which have now eroded." He also found that the Commonwealth failed to show ample other evidence of guilt upon which the jury could have relied. The District Court adopted this R&R without changes and issued an order granting habeas relief unless the Commonwealth retried or released Lee within 120 days. Superintendent Houtzdale and the District Attorney of Monroe County appealed.
On appeal, the Commonwealth did not challenge the determination that the admission of the fire expert testimony undermined the fundamental fairness of the entire trial. The Commonwealth did not object to the Magistrate Judge's assessment of the fire-science and gas chromatography evidence presented at trial, and it conceded that due to scientific developments since Lee's trial in 1990, the bases for all of the fire-science evidence and gas chromatography evidence are now invalid. The Commonwealth only argued that the District Court erred by accepting the Magistrate Judge's conclusion that the trial lacked "ample other evidence of guilt."
The Commonwealth argued that three remaining sources of evidence provided ample other evidence of guilty. First, Monroe County Coroner Robert Allen and Forensic Pathologist Isidore Mihalikis concluded that the cause and manner of death were conflagration and homicide. They both testified that there were minimal or tiny hemorrhages in the upper portion of Ji Yun's neck that suggested strangulation, suffocation, or pressure in the neck. They concluded that this, minimal smoke deposits in the Ji Yun's windpipe and lungs, and a slight elevation of her carbon monoxide levels were all consistent with Ji Yun being strangled before the fire was started.
However, the Magistrate Judge noted, and the Court agrees, that this inference was weak. Both Allen and Mihalikis acknowledged that the autopsy results were consistent with Ji Yun dying by a flashover rather than strangulation, and there was no evidence of petechiae, tiny ruptures of the capillaries, that are present in most strangulation cases. Further, the Court noted that their conclusion that the manner of death was homicide was almost certainly colored by the now-debunked fire-science evidence.
Second, the Commonwealth relied on testimony that in the hours and days after the fire Lee's demeanor showed little sign of grief as a remaining source of evidence. The Magistrate Judge characterized this as "a cultural stoicism which was construed as nonchalance."
Third, the Commonwealth asserted that there was evidence attacking the veracity of Lee's account of what happened the night of the fire. It first points to Lee's testimony that when he walked out the front door, the fire was in the back of the house. This is inconsistent with testimony from two firefighters on the scene that the fire started in the front of the cabin and then traveled to the back. The Commonwealth also pointed to other inconsistencies in six different accounts Lee gave of what happened the night of the fire; however, the Court notes that the basic outline of events remained the same across each account. Further, the Court states that most of the "inconsistencies" identified by the Commonwealth are better characterized as "minor details mentioned on some occasions and omitted on others." The District Court also characterized these discrepancies as "minor," noting that they could be explained by errors in translation from Korean to English.
The Court finds these three sources of evidence unconvincing. It states that, based on the evidence identified by the Commonwealth, it cannot conclude that the District Court committed plain error by adopting the R&R. Accordingly, the Court finds that the Commonwealth has not pointed to ample evidence sufficient to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, and it affirms the District Court's grant of habeas relief.

To read the full opinion, please visit

Panel (if known): Ambro, Fuentes, and Greenberg, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: June 18, 2015

Date of Issued Opinion: August 19, 2015

Docket Number: 14-3876

Decided: Affirmed District Court's grant of habeas relief

Case Alert Author: Jaclyn Poulton

Counsel for Appellants:
Mark S. Matthews, Esq. and Matthew J. Bernal, Esq. (Monroe County District Attorney's Office)

Counsel for Appellee:
Peter Goldberger, Esq. and Pamela A. Wilk, Esq.

Author of Opinion: Judge Ambro

Circuit: Third Circuit

Case Alert Supervisor: Prof. Susan L. DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 08/21/2015 03:09 PM     3rd Circuit  

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