Serving A Life Sentence, Lisa Michelle Lambert Mustered A Final Appeal. It Intrigued A Judge. How A Convicted Murderer Won Her Freedom

Posted: April 25, 1997

Lisa Michelle Lambert's lowest moment came late in 1994.

She was 21 and two years into a life sentence for a murder she swore she didn't commit.

And while imprisoned at the Cambridge Springs Correctional Facility in rural Crawford County, Pa., she had become the sexual property of a male guard - raped at his whim. When she complained, she said, she was placed in ``the hole'' - solitary confinement for 24 hours a day.

Lambert had been pregnant when she was arrested in 1991 for the killing of another Lancaster County teenager, 16-year-old Laurie Show. Lambert gave birth to a daughter, Kirsten, while awaiting trial. For her whole life, Kirsten had seen her mother only in a prison visiting room. Now that Lambert was in the hole, she was forced to wear handcuffs during the visits.

``I was physically falling apart,'' she wrote in a legal affidavit. ``There was next to no heat. . . . I could see my breath in the air. My skin on my face and hands was peeling off in raw pieces.

``My hair started falling out'' from the stress, she wrote. ``On one of my visits, a big chunk of hair came out in my little girl's hand, and she became very tearful. She tried so hard to put it back into my head . . . into my other hair. . . . She knew hair wasn't supposed to come out like that.''

The child cried and patted Lambert's face. ``Sorry, Mommy,'' Kirsten said.

When Lambert returned to her cell, she wrote in the affidavit, ``I decided to take my life. . . . ''

She started saving the aspirin provided by the prison nurse. After three weeks, she had 64 pills. She swallowed them all, lay down, and ``prayed I would die,'' she wrote. The suicide attempt failed, and Lambert's nightmare in the hole continued.

In 1996, James Eicher, the guard who had raped Lambert, was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Lambert was transferred to a New Jersey prison for her safety.

And there, as Lambert labored for $40 a month in the sewing room of the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in northern New Jersey, she gathered the strength to make one final appeal.

``Only now that I am away from the prison in Pennsylvania . . . and in a place that I feel more safe, am I able to focus on my legal claims,'' she said in the affidavit.

On Aug. 10, 1996, in a neat script, Lambert wrote her own federal court petition, begging for a chance to be proven innocent.

* On Monday, in a ruling that stunned the legal community here and in Lancaster County, a federal judge in Philadelphia overturned Lambert's conviction, saying her trial ``was corrupted from start to finish by wholesale prosecutorial misconduct.''

Police and prosecutors had so polluted the evidence that Lambert could not be retried, said U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell. He called for a criminal investigation.

``The fact is the commonwealth rigged the proceedings . . . to such an extent that it was a trial in name only,'' Dalzell said.

Lambert's defenders rejoiced at the outcome, while her detractors - notably John and Hazel Show, the parents of the murder victim - protested that a killer had been set free.

The ruling cast a pall over the justice system in Lancaster County, where other criminal convictions are likely to come under scrutiny.

Lambert's appeal was extraordinary on several levels.

A prominent Center City law firm, Schnader, Harrison, Segal & Lewis, took on the case pro bono last year and assigned eight lawyers to work on it full time.

A dramatic psychological analysis of the case, bolstered by expert witnesses, offered an explanation for why Lambert initially took the blame for her boyfriend.

Years of physical and sexual abuse by her boyfriend, the judge concluded, had transformed Lambert into a classic victim - willing to suffer mistreatment without complaining, a ready target for predators.

The grotesque slaying of Laurie Show in placid East Lampeter Township shook Lancaster County days before Christmas 1991.

That summer, Show had briefly dated Lawrence Yunkin, Lambert's boyfriend. The prosecution's theory was that Show unwittingly became the target of Lambert's jealousy - an obsession so intense that it turned to rage and led Lambert to stalk Show for six months.

Lambert and a friend, Tabitha Buck, broke into Show's house and slit her throat, the prosecution contended. Yunkin allegedly drove them there and waited in a McDonald's nearby while Show was killed.

Lambert told a completely different story - which Dalzell came to believe. She said Yunkin had raped Laurie and was afraid she would try to prosecute him. At Yunkin's bidding, the three teens went to Show's house that day intending to scare her. But things got out of hand, Lambert said, and Yunkin and Buck killed Laurie.

Prosecutors sought the death penalty for Lambert, saying she wielded the knife. She escaped with a life sentence for first-degree murder. Buck was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life. Yunkin pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and was given a 10-to-20-year term.

After the trials, Laurie's mother, Hazel, fought successfully for Pennsylvania's first anti-stalking legislation.

Dalzell found that the prosecution's case against Lambert was a mountain of lies. Prosecutors and police intimidated witnesses, used perjured testimony, and altered, suppressed and destroyed evidence to convict a woman they knew was innocent, the judge said.

Lancaster County District Attorney Joseph Madenspacher, who was not in office when the Lambert case was tried but who defended the conviction before Dalzell, said the investigation and prosecution were ``sloppy,'' but not a frame-up.

``Mistakes were made,'' said Madenspacher, ``but they did not rise to the level of criminal conduct.''

Dalzell saw it differently. Lancaster County, the judge said, ``made a Faustian bargain . . . a pact with the devil. It lost its soul and it almost executed an innocent, abused woman. Its legal edifice now in ashes, we can only hope for a . . . barn raising of the temple of justice.''

* At 6:45 a.m. on the morning of Dec. 20, 1991, Laurie Show was in the bathroom, getting ready for school, when her mother said good-bye and headed off.

Someone claiming to be the counselor had called the day before to set up an appointment and mysteriously refused to explain the reason for it.

When Lambert stood trial for Laurie's murder, Hazel Show testified that she arrived at the school shortly before 7, and that when the counselor did not appear by 7:11, she headed home.

When Show pulled up outside the condominium at 7:25 a.m., her downstairs neighbor came out and asked if anything was wrong. She said she had heard a ruckus.

Hazel said she rushed upstairs and found her daughter lying on her back.

``I didn't take it all in at first. She was trying to make sounds. I screamed to my neighbor. . . . I saw the rope around her neck. I got a paring knife from the kitchen and I bent down on my knees beside Laurie and put two fingers under the rope and cut it off. She moaned.

``I could see her throat was cut. I cradled her in my arms to try to keep the wound together. I told her I was sorry - that she didn't do anything wrong at school. It was a setup, I said.

``I asked who did this, and she said, `Michelle did it.'

``I told her I loved her and her father loved her. I told her God would take care of her, and she whispered, `Love you.' ''

Lambert testified, at her trial and again at the federal court hearing, that she and Buck planned to wait for Show at a bus stop, surprise her, and cut off her hair.

Buck broke into the Show home, pulled a knife and ``went wild,'' Lambert said. She said she tried to wrest Show from Buck's grip and pulled Show into the hallway, staining the floor and wall with blood.

Then, Buck pulled Show from her grasp, Lambert said. Lambert said she ran from the apartment and Yunkin then dashed in and helped Buck finish Laurie off.

* Dalzell gets hundreds of petitions a year from prisoners trying to get their convictions reversed. Only rarely is one granted.

But Lambert's stood out. She meticulously detailed an incredible story - that she had been raped by three local police officers six months before Show's killing and was later framed for murder by the officers, who sought to silence her.

In her petition, Lambert said the absolute proof of Yunkin's guilt was in a jailhouse love letter that had been referred to at her trial as ``The 29 Questions.''

And Lambert said that before Show died, she scrawled the initials of her true killers on the wall in her own blood.

Dalzell, intrigued by her claims, called Schnader, Harrison, seeking pro bono legal assistance. Partner Christina Rainville had just completed a breach-of-contract case in which a jury awarded her clients $12.5 million. She agreed to take Lambert's case. She had no idea what she getting into.

* Almost any woman can find herself in an abusive relationship. The key question is: What keeps some women from walking out the first time her partner hits her?

It's a question that has absorbed Ann W. Burgess, professor of psychiatric nursing at the University of Pennsylvania, who testified on Lambert's behalf before Dalzell.

During more than five hours on the stand, Burgess detailed the elements of Battered Woman Syndrome:

The batterer apologizes and promises to reform. And, because the love the woman feels for him is genuine, her need for affection is deep, and his regret seems sincere, the relationship continues with a pattern of abuse and apology that leads to the slow erosion of the woman's self-esteem.

Without treatment, she will continue in a cycle of abusive relationships and may even become a target for sexual predators.

Burgess who interviewed Lambert and her parents and analyzed her jailhouse love letters, said Lambert's was a classic case.

Lisa Michelle Lambert was ``a highly valued child in a typical household,'' the first child of Judy and Leonard Lambert.

The couple went on to have three boys, but Judy Lambert also suffered two miscarriages, and the strain left her emotionally spent, unable to care for her children, Burgess said.

By age 13, the ``obedient, compliant'' Lisa was in charge of the household, cooking, cleaning and looking after her brothers, Burgess testified.

The Lamberts were a church-going family who stressed the importance of virginity. Lisa was brought up to believe that her first sexual partner would be her partner for life.

At 15, she became rebellious. Her grades slipped, she dropped out of school and she left home to live with friends. A year later, she reconciled with her parents.

With Lisa back under their roof, her parents told her she ``needed'' a boyfriend, Burgess testifed.

So in the summer of 1988, Lisa's 8-year-old brother introduced her to the lifeguard at a local swimming pool he frequented - a tall blond Adonis named Lawrence Yunkin.

They clicked romantically, and she took him home to meet her folks. They approved.

On the evening of their fourth date, they were talking in the back of his van, parked in her parents' driveway, when he forced himself on her sexually, she said. She had been a virgin.

``He beat me and he raped me,'' Lisa testified before Dalzell.

The next day, Lawrence brought her flowers and apologized. She told no one about the rape.

The relationship intensified. Yunkins took her home to meet his parents, and the couple soon moved into the Yunkin home until they could get a place of their own. Eventually, they moved into a trailer park.

When fall came, Lawrence discouraged Lisa from returning to high school. He drove her everywhere she wanted to go so that she would not get her own driver's license. He encouraged her to look sexier.

Lisa's long brown hair, which cascaded to her shoulders like a silk scarf, was dyed champagne blonde to please Lawrence. He bought her tinted contact lenses to make her brown eyes blue.

``He told me I should have blue eyes so I looked like a Barbie,'' Lambert testified.

From now on, Yunkin said, Lisa would go by the name Michelle.

All the while, the violence in their relationship escalated, Burgess testified.

On the witness stand, Lambert said Yunkin would lose his temper over ``nothing at all,'' pull her hair, and slap her around. Once, she said, he cut his face and held her still while he let the blood drip onto her face.

On several occasions, neighbors called police to report noisy fights between Yunkin and Lambert. She never pressed charges. Rainville, Lambert's lead defense lawyer, said the complaints drew the attention of certain East Lampeter police officers to Lambert, and to her vulnerability.

That, Rainville said, explained what happened on the evening of June 17, 1991. Lambert told Dalzell she was gang raped in her trailer that night by two uniformed police officers, one of whom she recognized, and a third plainclothes officer who wore his badge on his belt.

When it was over, Lambert told Dalzell, the plainclothes officer said, ``I think she needs to have her mouth shut.''

Lambert did not report the rape, and none of the men was ever charged. She later told her trial lawyer about it, but forbade him to use it in her defense The rape would never have surfaced at the federal hearing, except that one of the police officers mentioned Lambert's allegation in a pre-hearing deposition.

Rainville was questioning the officer about something else and was stunned to hear him say he had been told that Lambert, in her habeus corpus petition, had accused him of rape. The petition contained no such allegation.

`` . . . There is no way that he could have ever known about that unless he was there and he did it,'' Lambert testified before Dalzell.

It was a turning point in the federal court hearing that had begun March 31. One of Lambert's key contentions - that police had a motive to set her up - had just gained credibility.

The judge had already been growing suspicious of the prosecution. A few days earlier, Dalzell had called all the lawyers into his chambers.

``I want to know what's going on here,'' Dalzell said. ``I'm hearing perjured testimony. . . . I'm being lied to. . . . and I'm afraid I'm going to have to refer this . . . to the U.S. Attorney.''

* The judge soon identified holes in the prosecution's case.

While the teenage suspects sat in separate cells in the Lancaster County prison in early 1992, Lambert and Yunkin exchanged love letters decorated with hearts, flowers and bunnies. In the letters, they laid out what each would tell investigators. Lambert would take the blame for Yunkin. They hoped that as a pregnant teen, she would get a light sentence.

Investigators intercepted and read the letters. Dalzell cited this as proof that police knew Lambert was innocent.

In her last missive to Yunkin, Lambert listed 29 questions for him to answer.

``I won't tell on you,'' the letter began. ``But please . . . there are some things I need to know if I'm supposed to take the blame for what you did.''

The ``29 questions,'' Dalzell wrote, show that Lambert was taking the fall for Yunkin and that police knew it.

There was more.

Dalzell said the prosecution hid or deliberately ``lost'' many crime scene photos. Among them were photos showing the initials the dying Show allegedly traced in blood on the wall of her bedroom - the letters T, B and Y.

Those and other crime-scene photos that pointed to Lambert's innocence had been in the custody of the lead police investigator, Ronald Savage, then an East Lampeter detective and now an elected district justice in the township.

Dalzell called for an investigation into the actions of Savage and trial prosecutor John Kenneff, Lancaster County's first asssistant district attorney.

District Attorney Madenspacher defended Kenneff and said he would remain his first assistant.

Geoff Johnson, a lawyer hired by Lancaster County to represent Savage and possibly other officials, disputed Dalzell's findings.

``In my opinion, he [Savage] was a credible witness who attempted very hard to answer the questions put to him, even though they were slanted . . . biased . . . and toally inappropriate. I disagree strongly with the judge's conclusions.''

Dalzell also concluded that police:

* Altered the statement that Lambert gave to investigators shortly after the murder, adding fabricated material to a blank half-page at the end.

* Erased portions of Yunkin's taped statement to police in which he incriminated himself.

The most crucial element of the prosecution's case - Laurie's dying declaration to her mother - was also shattered.

Three emergency medical workers testified before Dalzell that Show's left carotid artery had been severed, making speech impossible. But that evidence never came out at trial - the prosecution hid it, Dalzell found.

Another dramatic moment came on Day 13. Hazel Show had been in court for much of the hearing before Dalzell. On this day, something in the testimony she heard jogged her memory. She asked to speak to the judge, and Dalzell called her into his chambers, along with lawyers for both sides.

She had seen Yunkin leaving the crime scene, she said. ``He looked directly at me, and the expression on his face was that of a child, caught in the cookie jar,'' Show said.

Further, Show said, she had told this to Savage shortly after the murder, and Savage told her to keep it to herself.

That was enough for Dalzell. He ordered Lambert released immediately into Rainville's custody, pending his ruling on the petition. He also praised Show's courage for revealing exculpatory information about Lambert - even though Show thinks she is guilty.

She had every reason to hold her tongue,'' Dalzell wrote, but her conscience ``would not tolerate such silence.''

Lambert, a brunette once again and wearing very light makeup, wept when she learned that Dalzell believed her. For the remaining two days of the hearing, she wore a business suit to court rather than prison blues and handcuffs.

Soon she would be reunited with Kirsten.

comments powered by Disqus