The Supreme Court Just Made It More Likely Innocent People Will Be Executed

It’s already difficult 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 who were sentenced to death were not entitled to present new evidence in federal court showing that they had ineffective lawyers at trial.

The decision increases the likelihood that people who are innocent or otherwise undeserving of their sentences will remain incarcerated, or even face execution.

As a result of the court’s ruling, death sentences remain intact for Barry Lee Jones, a man with a credible innocence claim, 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 chokes off an important avenue for people arguing they were poorly served by bad lawyers. If an individual has an ineffective lawyer at trial and then subsequently ends up with another ineffective lawyer who fails to argue that their client had ineffective counsel at trial, that individual may have no way of ever raising the issue in court.

Federal habeas review, through which a federal court can review the legality of an individual’s incarceration, is supposed to be a safeguard against unfair outcomes in state court, but the Supreme Court has increasingly chipped away at those protections. The stakes are particularly high for people facing capital punishment. Despite the common misconception that people on death row represent the “worst of the worst,” they are usually people who have dealt with abuse, poverty, intellectual disabilities or untreated mental illness. They often rely on court-appointed attorneys, 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 reduces to rubble many habeas petitioners’ Sixth Amendment rights to the effective assistance of counsel,” Sotomayor continued.

The Supreme Court ruling in Shinn v. Ramirez involves the separate cases of Jones and Ramirez, both of whom were convicted and sentenced to death in Arizona. Both men received abysmal legal assistance during their trials. During state post-conviction proceedings — the time to raise ineffective assistance of counsel claims — both of their lawyers failed to do so. Because of this, Jones and Ramirez sought relief in federal court.

“The Court’s decision thus reduces to rubble many habeas petitioners’ Sixth Amendment rights to the effective assistance of counsel.”

– Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor

There are extensive procedural barriers to raising issues in federal court that have not already 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 lawyers at both trial and state post-conviction proceedings.

For Jones, this meant the chance to present evidence of his innocence, which led to his conviction being overturned in 2018 after he’d spent 23 years on death row.

Jones was accused of raping and killing his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter, Rachel, who died in 1994 following a rupture in her small intestine. The state claimed that Jones had assaulted her the day before her death, while she was in Jones’ care. Had Jones’s trial lawyers done basic investigative work, they would have learned that it was extremely unlikely Rachel’s abdominal injury could have become fatal so quickly and that there was no solid evidence she was raped, as the Intercept has previously reported. But the jury heard none of this evidence and convicted Jones, who was then sentenced to death.

Under Arizona law, individuals cannot raise ineffective assistance of counsel claims on direct appeal, the first review after a conviction. Instead, they have to wait until their state post-conviction review. Unlike during trial and direct appeal, there is no guaranteed right to a lawyer at this stage.

Jones was appointed a lawyer who was not technically qualified to represent him in post-conviction proceedings, as the lawyer later admitted. When the lawyer moved to appoint an investigator, he did so under the wrong legal statute and the request was denied. The lawyer failed to argue that Jones received ineffective assistance of counsel at trial in Jones’ petition for post-conviction relief, and the petition was denied.

It wasn’t until Jones reached the federal habeas stage of litigation that he received competent lawyers, who, with the benefit of the 2012 Martinez decision, were able to introduce new evidence and get Jones’ conviction overturned.

The Supreme Court decision in Shinn v. Ramirez sets a new precedent that chokes off an important avenue for people arguing they were poorly served by bad lawyers.

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 later beat him with electrical cords. He showed developmental delays, including delayed walking, potty training and speech, and had difficulty using utensils to eat.

Ramirez was accused of fatally stabbing his girlfriend and her daughter in 1989. His trial counsel failed to present mitigating evidence of his abusive childhood or evidence that he had an intellectual disability, both of which could have resulted in a sentence less severe than death. (The Supreme Court later held in 2002 that the death penalty amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for people with intellectual disabilities.)

As in Jones’ case, Ramirez’s state post-conviction lawyers failed to argue that he had received ineffective assistance at trial, and his post-conviction petition was denied. Like Jones, Ramirez finally received a capable lawyer at the federal habeas stage, and a federal appellate court directed the district court to allow evidentiary development of the issue.

In a bid to keep Jones and Ramirez on death row, Arizona petitioned the Supreme Court to review their cases. The state argued that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a bill passed by Congress in 1996 that curtailed federal habeas review, did not allow federal courts to consider the new evidence in the two cases.

“Innocence isn’t enough,” Arizona Attorney General Brunn Wall Roysden insisted during oral arguments last year.

In other words, if an innocent person’s lawyer fails to present evidence of their innocence at trial, and their state post-conviction lawyer fails to argue the trial lawyer’s ineffectiveness, the innocent person is out of luck.

On Monday, the conservative justices on the Supreme Court agreed, claiming that under AEDPA, a federal habeas court cannot consider evidence beyond what is already in the state court record based on the ineffective assistance of state post-conviction counsel.

The opinion was written by Justice Clarence Thomas, whose wife lobbied lawmakers to overturn the 2020 presidential election. In the opinion, Thomas includes no mention of the evidence of Jones’ innocence or of Ramirez’s intellectual disability. Instead, he wrote extensively about the “costs” of federal habeas review and claimed that making habeas relief too widely available encourages prisoners to “sandba[g]” state courts by presenting a few claims on state post-conviction review while saving others for federal habeas review if the first ones don’t work out.

“That claim is odd,” Sotomayor wrote in her dissent. “No habeas petitioner or postconviction counsel could possibly perceive a strategic benefit from failing to raise a meritorious trial-ineffectiveness claim in an available forum.”

“On the other side of the ledger, the Court understates, or ignores altogether, the gravity of the state systems’ failures in these two cases,” Sotomayor continued. “To put it bluntly: Two men whose trial attorneys did not provide even the bare minimum level of representation required by the Constitution may be executed because forces outside of their control prevented them from vindicating their constitutional right to counsel.”

Neither AEDPA nor Supreme Court precedent required the court to rule in the direction it chose, Sotomayor wrote.

The majority’s opinion relies on “its own mistaken understanding of AEDPA’s policies,” “recycling claims” 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 state postconviction proceedings, the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee is now an empty one,” Sotomayor wrote. “Many, if not most, individuals in this position will have no recourse and no opportunity for relief. The responsibility for this devastating outcome lies not with Congress, but with this Court.”

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