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Steven Lazar

Other Philadelphia Exonerations
On January 9, 2007, Evelyn Gutierrez found the body of her father, 79-year-old Dario Gutierrez, in his home in the Fairhill neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A pathologist would later testify that Gutierrez had likely been killed on January 7, and that he had received about a dozen blows to the face with an axe or hatchet.

Police found no sign of forced entry, but Gutierrez’s wallet and keys were missing. Gutierrez’s son was an officer with the Philadelphia Police Department, and the police initially suspected that the murder might be tied to Dario Gutierrez's forceful stance against drug dealers in his neighborhood.

On January 10, the police received a tip from an informant that a man known as “Muhammad” had admitted to taking Gutierrez’s money. Separately, a confidential informant told the police on January 11 that he had seen two drug dealers, William Rosa and Victor Berrios, enter Gutierrez’s house and drive off in a black Honda. Berrios was arrested on January 18 on unrelated charges, and authorities seized his property, including the Honda and a rusty machete.

Despite these potential leads, the investigation ran dry. In April 2007, Evelyn Gutierrez called the police. She said she had found a small suitcase on a chair under an awning outside the back of the house. An officer retrieved the bag. A month later, Detective Robert Baker looked inside and found a yearbook photograph, identification papers, a letter from a Methadone clinic, and other personal belongings of Steven Lazar.

Another month passed, and on July 3, 2007, Baker interviewed Lazar, who had just turned 23 years old and had an extensive history of drug abuse. He told Baker that the bag was his, but he didn’t know how it ended up under the awning. He said he had been squatting at a nearby drug house and lost the bag when he ran after the police showed up. Baker returned the suitcase to Lazar and let him go.

On November 2, 2007, Lazar and his roommate, Russell Angely, got into a fight. Both men called the police. Angely was arrested and told the police that Lazar had confessed to him about the Gutierrez murder. On November 12, Sarn Wilson, another friend of Lazar’s, said that Lazar had made similar statements to him.

At 8 a.m. on November 19, Philadelphia police arrested Lazar on a bench warrant from a neighboring county and brought him in for questioning. He was kept in a small room and interrogated over the next 30 hours.

In his first statement, made around 7:30 p.m., Lazar said that he and a man named John had been doing drugs in an abandoned property when they discussed going to Gutierrez’s house because Gutierrez had failed to pay John’s girlfriend for sex. Lazar said he didn’t act on the plan because the police came by and he fled the abandoned house, paying a woman $40 to cut through her yard. Later, Lazar said, he went inside a house and saw John covered in blood and rifling through drawers.

Lazar stayed in the interview room overnight while police returned to the neighborhood, looking for the woman and the abandoned house.

Lazar gave another statement at 2:45 p.m. on November 20. Now, he said that the abandoned house must have been on a different block. Lazar said that he went into Gutierrez’s house to find John receiving oral sex from Gutierrez. Lazar said that Gutierrez offered to perform oral sex on him, but before that happened, Lazar hit Gutierrez in the head with the palm of his hand. Then, he said in the statement, John hit Gutierrez with a hatchet five times.

After the second statement, Lazar complained of painful urination and went to the hospital. He reported other symptoms, including leg pain, shaking, dizziness, nausea, and diarrhea. His blood tested positive for anti-withdrawal drugs, benzodiazepines, cocaine, and marijuana. The hospital records from this visit described Lazar’s speech as normal, his appearance as “neat and appropriate,” and his demeanor as “irritable but cooperative.” The staff treated Lazar with anti-withdrawal medication and released him.

Police charged Lazar with second-degree murder, robbery, conspiracy to commit robbery, and a weapons offense.

Prior to trial, Lazar moved to suppress his statements, arguing that he was experiencing Methadone-withdrawal at the time of the interviews. During the proceedings, the state and defense stipulated that Lazar received his last dose of Methadone on October 24, 2007, nearly a month before his arrest. A judge denied the motion to suppress.

Lazar’s trial in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas began on May 4, 2010.

Angely testified about Lazar’s purported statements that he killed Gutierrez. Wilson testified that Lazar had first told him of his involvement after Lazar returned from the police department with his suitcase. Wilson testified that he “didn’t take it seriously,” because Lazar “had a habit of trying to portray something else to me that he wasn’t.”

The state had three other witnesses who had given police statements against Lazar. June Blase and her husband, John Barry, both testified that they heard Lazar make incriminating comments about his involvement in the murder. But they also said Lazar was prone to exaggeration.

Mark Kedra testified that police fabricated the statement he made against Lazar. He also said that he talked with Lazar after Lazar’s first meeting with the police, in July 2007, and Lazar told him that the police had given Lazar details of the crime. One of the detectives who took Kedra’s statement denied that it was fabricated and read the statement to the jury.

The suitcase was the only physical evidence tying Lazar to the crime scene. Evelyn Gutierrez found the item on a chair under the back awning nearly four months after the murder, and Lazar’s attorney attempted to show that there was no proof the suitcase was there on January 9, 2007.

Police officer Terrance Lewis, who processed the crime scene, testified that he did not take any photographs of the back of the house. “The door was intact, there was a ladder against it, so I didn’t go into the yard to photograph,” Lewis said.

Baker first testified that he also didn’t go into the backyard. But on cross-examination, he said he had visited the backyard about two weeks after the murder. He said he didn’t notice the suitcase because he wasn’t looking for it. “It’s a large yard with vehicles in it,” he said. “I’m not looking for a briefcase; I’m looking for a weapon.”

The state had told jurors in its opening statement that Lazar emerged as a suspect who acted alone after the case had gone cold. Baker testified that, “Actually until shortly after July it was still an open case, but there was no information coming in at all.”

The prosecutor then asked, “When you say information, you had no interviews from people, anyone telling you about the case?” Baker said that was correct.

Lazar’s attorney attempted to introduce evidence about Rosa and Berrios to advance an alternate theory of the crime. The state argued the evidence was hearsay, and the trial judge didn’t allow the jury to hear this information.

In its opening statement, the state had said nobody went into the backyard prior to the daughter finding the suitcase. In its closing statement, the state now said the suitcase was there, but Baker had somehow missed it. That was not proof of innocence, just a sign of some sloppy police work, the state said. “Could Baker have gone and stayed there longer than five minutes? Absolutely. . . The scene wasn’t done correctly. It wasn’t done right. They would have found it if they went in the yard and they didn’t. They didn’t. And [Lazar] almost got away with it. He took advantage of it and is trying to take advantage of it again, and don’t let him.”

The jury convicted Lazar on May 11, 2010 on all charges, and he received a sentence of life in prison.

His direct appeal, claiming insufficient evidence, was rejected by the Pennsylvania Superior Court on August 2, 2011. Lazar then filed a claim under the state’s Post-Conviction Relief Act, asserting that his trial attorney hadn’t properly reviewed the records of Lazar’s drug-treatment program. The records showed that Lazar had taken Methadone the day before his arrest. According to the motion, Lazar would have been experiencing severe withdrawal at the time of his police interviews, which made his statements unreliable.

The trial court agreed that Lazar’s attorney had been deficient but said there was little likelihood that this new information would have changed the result of the suppression hearing or the trial itself. Lazar appealed that ruling, and a three-judge panel of the Superior Court of Pennsylvania affirmed the conviction on July 23, 2014.

Lazar then filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The petition repeated the claims of ineffective assistance of counsel. Judge Gerald McHugh denied the petition on March 1, 2017.

Judge McHugh said he was “troubled” by the case; the witnesses against Lazar all had credibility problems and it was likely that Lazar’s confession was “withdrawal-tainted.” But he wrote that the prejudice Lazar suffered due to his attorney’s failure wasn’t overwhelming and the federal courts must give state courts the benefit of the doubt.

In 2021, Lazar’s attorneys asked the Conviction Integrity Unit (CIU) of the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office to review the case. The two sides entered into a cooperation agreement that allowed Lazar’s attorneys to review the files of police and prosecutors.

After the review, Lazar’s attorneys moved to re-open the habeas proceedings. Judge McHugh granted the request, and Lazar filed an amended petition on September 8, 2022.

The amended petition had three main areas. First, contrary to Baker’s testimony, statements by prosecutors at trial, and the state’s arguments in post-conviction motions, Berrios and Rosa were never properly excluded as suspects. The police seized Berrios’s Honda but never properly examined the vehicle. A 2012 memo in the district attorney’s files said, “There is no evidence police even investigated other suspects.” This appeared to contradict the state’s response in 2013, when Lazar sought records to bolster a claim that information on alternate suspects had been withheld from his defense. The state said then, “The police already investigated these two people and ruled them out.”

Separately, the state had failed to disclose impeachment evidence against Baker. He had been reprimanded in 1998 for denying a suspect’s request to talk with an attorney. He had also attempted to coerce a witness into signing a false statement as part of the wrongful conviction of Chester Hollman III.

Finally, the review of the case file turned up a photograph of the backyard with the chair but no suitcase. Although undated, the photo appeared to be taken before Evelyn Gutierrez found the suitcase in that location and supported Lazar’s assertion that his belongings ended up in Gutierrez’s backyard days, weeks, or months after the murder.

“Without the suitcase in that chair in January, the Commonwealth’s case implodes,” the motion said. In its response, dated October 21, 2022, attorneys with the district attorney’s CIU agreed that Judge McHugh should grant the habeas petition. It said the state had failed to disclose Baker’s “history of misconduct,” which would have bolstered Lazar’s claim that the detective fed him information about the crime prior to Lazar making his statements and also undermined Baker’s testimony that he had “missed” the suitcase during his inspection of the property.

Similarly, the state agreed that it withheld evidence about the sparse investigation into alternate suspects.

“There is no evidence in the files that police interviewed Berrios or Rosa,” the state’s response said. “In short, there is little in the homicide or prosecution file to support the conclusion that Berrios or Rosa were excluded as suspects or that they were ‘dead ends.’”

Finally, the CIU said this withheld evidence had a direct impact on Lazar’s post-conviction claims of deficient representation. The courts had ruled that his attorney’s errors hadn’t prejudiced Lazar because the other evidence was so compelling. But the withheld evidence substantially weakened the state’s case, giving more weight to the statements Lazar made while undergoing Methadone withdrawal and the harm he suffered after those statements were allowed to be used at trial.

On March 6, 2023, Judge McHugh granted Lazar’s petition. He said that the state had conceded that it withheld exculpatory evidence and that the failure to disclose had dire consequences for Lazar, compounding mistakes by his attorney.

“Here, defense counsel made an egregious error in failing to recognize that his client was coping with methadone withdrawal over the course of a 30-hour interrogation,” Judge McHugh wrote. “That mistake alone had profound import, but with the confession already admitted, the defense had a particularly urgent need to demonstrate its unreliability. Consequently, evidence pointing away from Lazar as the perpetrator, and evidence suggesting that the investigating detective was not worthy of credence, were of heightened importance.”

On March 23, 2023, the state moved to dismiss the charges, and Judge Lillian Ransom of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas granted the motion. Lazar was released from custody.

“He wants to go home to his mom’s house, shower, and have a cup of coffee,” his brother, Phil Lazar, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We’ll take it from there.”

In March 2024, Lazar filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against the city of Philadelphia and several police officers, seeking compensation for his wrongful conviction.

– Ken Otterbourg

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Posting Date: 4/10/2023
Last Updated: 3/13/2024
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Robbery, Weapon Possession or Sale, Conspiracy
Reported Crime Date:2007
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:False Confession, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct, Inadequate Legal Defense
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:No