The opinion of the court was delivered by: HURD
Plaintiff Carl Chamberlain ("plaintiff" or "Chamberlain"), whose 1989 murder conviction was vacated on a writ of habeas corpus, pursues his § 1983 claim against former police investigators David L. Harding ("Harding") and Robert M. Lishansky, ("Lishansky") who tampered with evidence in the plaintiff's criminal prosecution.
This opinion arises from the same factual circumstances as Chamberlain v. Mantello, 954 F. Supp. 499 (N.D.N.Y. 1997), and assumes familiarity with that opinion, and the Report-Recommendation in Chamberlain v. Mantello, 1996 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13371, 1996 WL 521062 (N.D.N.Y. 1996), upon which that opinion was based.
Plaintiff's claim arises from the use of perjured evidence in his conviction for the 1989 hit and run death of Klara Siflis ("Siflis"). In the early morning hours of May 5, 1989, plaintiff's car was stopped on Route 13 in Dryden by Trooper Standinger of the New York State Police. Plaintiff was driving, and the trooper arrested him for driving while intoxicated. Later that morning, a utility crew discovered Siflis' corpse less than two miles from the spot where plaintiff was arrested. After the discovery of the body, plaintiff was charged with Siflis' murder.
To establish that plaintiff's car killed Siflis, and that she was struck intentionally, the prosecution relied on the testimony of State Police Investigators Harding and Lishansky, who were assigned to the Siflis murder investigation after plaintiff's arrest. At trial, Harding testified that he recovered auto body filler ("bondo") from the victim's hair that matched bondo recovered from the plaintiff's car at the police impound facility. Lishansky testified as an expert in accident reconstruction. He claimed to have found pieces of plastic at the scene of the accident that were reconstructed to form the headlight assembly missing from plaintiff's car. Lishansky expressed his professional opinion that the pattern of debris at the accident site indicated that the victim was struck directly from behind, the vehicle that hit her was not braking, and the vehicle may have been accelerating.
No evidence was presented at trial to suggest that Harding or Lishansky knew Chamberlain personally, had dealings with him, or entertained ulterior motives in pursuing their investigation.
To establish that Chamberlain was the driver of the car, the prosecution presented the testimony of George Walker ("Walker") and Donald Hooper, who were passengers in the car on the night of the accident. They testified that Chamberlain was driving on the morning of May 5, when he passed a woman on a bicycle. They further testified that he then turned the car around in order to pursue her, and he deliberately ran her down with the car. Chamberlain denied guilt, alleging that Walker was driving at the time of the accident, and that he himself took over the driving only after Walker had hit Siflis. On October 13, 1989, Chamberlain was convicted of murder in the second degree, depraved indifference to human life, and leaving the scene of an accident. He was sentenced to 25 years to life.
Chamberlain's conviction was affirmed on appeal to the Appellate Division, Third Department. People v. Chamberlain, 178 A.D.2d 783, 578 N.Y.S.2d 270 (3d Dep't 1991). The New York State Court of Appeals denied Chamberlain leave to appeal. 79 N.Y.2d 945 (1992).
Subsequently, new information came to light about the death of Siflis and the prosecution of Chamberlain. Four individuals submitted sworn affidavits asserting that Walker intimated to them that he was the driver of the car that hit Siflis, and he and his friend Hooper had blamed the crime on Chamberlain. Furthermore, investigators Harding and Lishansky had each pled guilty to perjury and evidence tampering in other cases. Harding had admitted to Special Prosecutor Nelson Roth, who was prosecuting evidence tampering in State Police investigations, that he had planted bondo in Siflis' hair, and that Lishansky had manufactured evidence relating to the broken headlight assembly of Chamberlain's car.
Tompkins County Court denied Chamberlain's motion to vacate the conviction pursuant to N.Y. Crim. Proc. Law §§ 440.10 and 440.2, on the grounds that the perjurious testimony only linked the death of Siflis to the car involved, and did not establish the identity of the driver, which a jury had already determined at trial. People v. Chamberlain, No. 89-67 (Tompkins Co. Ct., filed October 25, 1993). The Appellate Division, Third Department, denied leave to appeal on December 14, 1993.
In August 1995, Chamberlain filed a habeas corpus petition in this court. The petition was granted, and plaintiff was granted a new trial. 954 F. Supp. 499. The criminal case was remanded to Tompkins County Court. In the remanded proceedings, Chamberlain was sentenced to 5 to 15 years for the crime of reckless manslaughter in the second degree after he entered a guilty plea pursuant to North Carolina v. Alford, 400 U.S. 25, 27 L. Ed. 2d 162, 91 S. Ct. 160 (1970). An Alford plea allows a defendant to maintain his innocence while acknowledging that the prosecution may be able to obtain a trial conviction which could result in a greater sentence. A defendant entering an Alford plea denies committing the crime, ...