It’s hard enough to challenge a sentence or conviction in federal court — and the Supreme Court just made it even harder on Monday. In a 6-3 decision in Shinn v. Ramirez, the court ruled that two people on death row were barred from presenting new evidence in federal court showing they had ineffective attorneys at trial.
The ruling increases the likelihood that people who are innocent or undeserving of their sentence will remain incarcerated or even be executed.
Following the court’s decision, death sentences remain untouched for Barry Lee Jones, a man who claims credible innocence, and for David Martinez Ramirez, who may have an intellectual disability that would disqualify him from the death penalty.
More broadly, the court set a new precedent that stifles an important avenue for people arguing that they have been poorly served by bad lawyers. If a person has an ineffective lawyer at trial and then ends up with another ineffective attorney who fails to argue that his client had ineffective counsel at trial, that person may have no way of ever raising the issue in court.
The federal habeas review, by which a federal court can review the legality of an individual’s incarceration, is meant to be a safeguard against unfair results in state court, but the Supreme Court has additionally in addition reduces these protections. The stakes are particularly high for those facing the death penalty. Despite the common misconception that death row inmates represent “the worst of the worst,” they are usually people who have faced abuse, poverty, intellectual disability, or untreated mental illness. They often rely on court-appointed lawyers, many of whom are ill-equipped to handle death penalty litigation.
“This decision is perverse. It is illogical,” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissent, joined by Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. “The Court’s decision thus shatters the Sixth Amendment rights of many habeas petitioners to effective counsel,” Sotomayor continued.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Shinn v. Ramirez concerns the separate cases of Jones and Ramirez, who were both convicted and sentenced to death in Arizona. Both men received abysmal legal assistance during their trials. During the post-conviction state process – time to raise requests for ineffective assistance from counsel – their two attorneys failed to do so. Because of this, Jones and Ramirez sought relief in federal court.
The court’s decision thus shattered the Sixth Amendment rights of many habeas petitioners to effective counsel.Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court Justice
There are significant procedural hurdles to raising issues in federal court that have not yet been raised in state court. But a 2012 Supreme Court decision called Martinez v. Ryan created a narrow exception for people like Jones and Ramirez, who had ineffective attorneys both at trial and in the state’s post-conviction proceedings.
For Jones, that meant the chance to present evidence of his innocence, which led to his conviction being overturned in 2018 after spending 23 years on death row.
Jones was accused of raping and killing his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter, Rachel, who died in 1994 from a ruptured small intestine. The state claimed that Jones assaulted her the day before she died, while she was in Jones’ custody. If Jones’ trial attorneys had done basic investigative work, they would have learned that it was extremely unlikely that Rachel’s abdominal injury could have become fatal so quickly and that there was no solid evidence. that it was breached, as the intercept did. previouslyreported. But the jury heard none of this evidence and convicted Jones, who was later sentenced to death.
Under Arizona law, individuals cannot raise claims for ineffective assistance from counsel on direct appeal, the first review after a conviction. Instead, they must wait until their post-conviction review. Unlike the trial and direct appeal, there is no guaranteed right to counsel at this stage.
Jones was appointed an attorney who was not technically qualified to represent him in post-conviction proceedings, as the attorney later admitted. When the lawyer requested the appointment of an investigator, he did so under the wrong law and the request was denied. The attorney did not argue that Jones received ineffective assistance from counsel at trial in Jones’ motion for post-conviction relief, and the motion was dismissed.
It was not until Jones reached the federal habeas stage that he received competent attorneys who, thanks to the 2012 Martinez decision, were able to present new evidence and have Jones’ conviction overturned.
The Supreme Court’s decision in Shinn v. Ramirez sets a new precedent that stifles an important avenue for people claiming they have been poorly served by bad lawyers. (Photo: Photo by Erin Schaff-Pool/Getty Images)
Ramirez grew up eating on the floor in a house littered with animal feces. His mother drank while she was pregnant with him and then beat him with electric wires. He showed developmental delays, including delayed walking, toilet training and speech, and had difficulty using utensils to eat.
Ramirez was charged with fatally stabbing his girlfriend and daughter in 1989. His trial attorney offered no mitigating evidence of his abusive childhood or evidence that he had an intellectual disability, which could have resulted in a punishment less severe than death. (The Supreme Court later detained in 2002 that the death penalty amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for people with mental disabilities.)
As in Jones’ case, Ramirez’s post-conviction state attorneys did not argue that he received ineffective trial assistance, and his post-conviction motion was denied. Like Jones, Ramirez eventually received a competent attorney at the federal habeas stage, and a federal appeals court ordered the district court to allow evidence to develop on the issue.
In an effort to keep Jones and Ramirez on death row, Arizona asked the Supreme Court to reconsider their cases. The state argued that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a bill passed by Congress in 1996 who reduced the federal habeas testdid not allow the federal courts to consider the new evidence in the two cases.
“Innocence is not enough,” said Arizona Attorney General Brunn Wall Roysden. insisted during the pleadings last year.
In other words, if an innocent person’s attorney does not present evidence of his innocence at trial and his attorney after the state’s conviction does not argue trial counsel’s ineffectiveness, the innocent person is out of luck.
On Monday, conservative Supreme Court justices agreed, saying that under AEDPA, a federal habeas court cannot consider evidence beyond what is already in the court’s docket. State on the basis of ineffective assistance from state counsel post-conviction.
the opinion was written by Justice Clarence Thomas, whose his wife lobbied lawmakers to cancel the 2020 presidential election. In the notice, Thomas does not include any mention of proof of Jones’ innocence or Ramirez’s intellectual disability. Instead, he wrote extensively about the “costs” of the federal habeas review and argued that making habeas relief too widely available encourages prisoners to “sandba.”[g]state courts by bringing some claims to state post-conviction review while sparing others for federal habeas review if the former don’t work out.
“This claim is strange,” Sotomayor wrote in his dissent. “No habeas petitioner or post-conviction attorney could perceive a strategic advantage in not raising a meritorious claim of trial inefficiency in any available forum.”
“On the other side of the ledger, the court is downplaying, or completely ignoring, the seriousness of the failings of state systems in these two cases,” Sotomayor continued. “To put it bluntly: two men whose lawyers failed to provide even the minimum level of representation required by the Constitution can be executed because forces beyond their control prevented them from exercising their constitutional right to counsel. “
Neither the AEDPA nor Supreme Court precedent compelled the court to rule in the direction it had chosen, Sotomayor wrote.
The majority opinion is based on “its own misunderstanding of AEDPA policies,” “recycling claims” that the Supreme Court rejected in the 2012 Martinez case, Sotomayor continued.
“For the subset of these petitioners who receive ineffective assistance both at trial and in the state’s post-conviction proceedings, the Sixth Amendment guarantee is now void,” Sotomayor wrote. “Many, if not most, people in this position will have no recourse and no possibility of redress. The blame for this devastating result lies not with Congress, but with this Court. »
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.