New opinion — a rare habeas-petitioner win

Programming note: I was in Charlotte last week for the National Federal Habeas Corpus Seminar, and I’m out of town this week visiting family, so I’m behind on my opinion summaries. Apologies, dear readers.

Lee v. Superintendent — habeas corpus — affirmance — Ambro

I’ve observed here and here before that the Third Circuit’s once-robust reversal rate in habeas cases cratered after 2011. That post used statistics through 2013; in 2014, the habeas- and 2255-reversal rate remained vanishingly low. I’m pretty sure that reversal-rate freefall is awful news for habeas petitioners overall — CA3 didn’t suddenly get more deferential to district-court habeas rulings. Instead, a lot of prisoners who would have won reversals on appeal a few years ago get affirmed now.

But the Court’s recent decision in Han Tak Lee’s case proves that not all habeas affirmances are prisoner losses. Lee was convicted in Pa. court of murdering his daughter by setting fire to the building where she slept. In his habeas petition, Lee alleged that his due-process rights were violated because the prosecution’s arson-expert testimony was junk science. That’s a legally creative claim, and creative claims almost always lose in habeas these days, but the circuit’s ruling in Lee’s prior appeal was law of the case and it gave him enough to win in district court and again on appeal.

It is often said that cases like this prove how well our legal system works, but that is absurd. Even after the prosecution’s key evidence was discredited, and even after Lee hit the lottery when he got appellate powerhouse Peter Goldberger to represent him, he still won only by the skin of his teeth. And he first alleged in federal court the gross unreliability of the prosecution’s evidence against him back in 2005, but he sat behind bars for almost another decade before his release. Han Tak Lee was in maximum-security prison, wrongfully convicted of killing his own daughter, for 24 years. As he told People earlier this month, “I lost all my dreams.”

Joining Ambro were Fuentes and Greenberg. Arguing counsel were Peter Goldberger for Mr. Lee and Matthew Bernal for the state.