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Supreme Court shuts down Arizona death row inmates fighting attorney errors

Supreme Court shuts down Arizona death row inmates fighting attorney errors

For liberal justices writing in dissent, majority's ruling is illogical & indifferent to 6th Amendment violation

  • Contemplation of Justice statue on the U.S. Supreme Court Building's main steps.
    Architect of the CapitolContemplation of Justice statue on the U.S. Supreme Court Building's main steps.

The Supreme Court ruled Monday against two Arizona men on death row who say there is new evidence that proves the performance at trial by their lawyers was constitutionally deficient.  

Split 6-3 on party lines, the conservative majority ruled that federal courts, when considering ineffective-assistance claims, cannot consider evidence beyond what the inmates presented when they first brought their challenges in state courts.

“We now hold that, under §2254(e)(2), a federal habeas court may not conduct an evidentiary hearing or otherwise consider evidence beyond the state-court record based on ineffective assistance of state postconviction counsel,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority

Led by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the dissenting liberal justices called the ruling “perverse,” “illogical” and indifferent to Sixth Amendment violations. 

“This Court has recognized that right as ‘a bedrock principle’ that constitutes the very ‘foundation for our adversary system’ of criminal justice,” Sotomayor wrote. “Today, however, the Court hamstrings the federal courts’ authority to safeguard that right. The Court’s decision will leave many people who were convicted in violation of the Sixth Amendment to face incarceration or even execution without any meaningful chance to vindicate their right to counsel.” 

The case stems the postconviction appeals brought by David Martinez Ramirez and Barry Lee Jones, who are both facing capital punishment for murder convictions in Arizona. Their challenges involve carve-outs from a pair of Supreme Court decisions, the 1991 case Coleman v. Thompson and Martinez v. Ryan from 2012. Coleman holds that prisoners would need to demonstrate cause to excuse procedural defaults. Martinez says that the ineffective assistance of postconviction counsel could be the cause to excuse procedural defaults. 

Ramirez was sentenced to death for murdering Mary Ann Gortarez and her 15-year-old daughter in their apartment in 1989. On direct appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court affirmed his convictions and agreed with the sentencing judge that he should not be granted leniency.

The Arizona Supreme Court also affirmed the death-penalty sentence given to Barry Lee Jones who murdered his girlfriend’s 4-year-old child and was also found guilty of sexual assault and three counts of child abuse.

Ramirez and Jones sought state post-conviction relief neither argued initially that their trial attorneys provided ineffective counsel. After those petitions were denied, such arguments appeared in the federal habeas petitions they filed later. Federal judges denied their petitions, but, after Martinez was decided, the Ninth Circuit called for their cases to be reconsidered. 

The Ninth Circuit would later find that the U.S. District Court applied the wrong standard under Martinez when it found that his counsel was not ineffective. In Jones’ case, the U.S. district judge concluded that Jones had proven his claim. If Arizona fails to retry him, that ruling grants Jones conditional habeas allowing him to be released from custody.

Arizona appealed both results to the high court in Washington. Pointing to the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which prevents a federal court from considering evidence outside of the state-court record when granting habeas relief, the state asked if the 2012 Martinez precedent makes AEDPA inapplicable to federal court’s merits review of habeas claims. 

The court underscored Monday that federal courts can hold evidentiary hearings only if a prisoner needs to develop evidence outside of state court proceedings under very narrow circumstances. Even when an inmate vaults those bars, Thomas wrote for the majority, habeas courts are still not required to hold hearings or take evidence. Ramirez and Jones failed to sway the court that prisoners cannot be at fault for attorney errors. 

“A prisoner ‘bears the risk in federal habeas for all attorney errors made in the course of the representation,’ unless counsel provides ‘constitutionally ineffective’ assistance,” Thomas wrote. “And, because there is no constitutional right to counsel in state postconviction proceedings a prisoner ordinarily must ‘bea[r] responsibility’ for all attorney errors during those proceedings, Among those errors, a state prisoner is responsible for counsel’s negligent failure to develop the state postconviction record.” 

For Thomas, allowing additional evidentiary hearings would just encourage more federal litigation on defaulted claims. 

“State prisoners already have a strong incentive to save claims for federal habeas proceedings in order to avoid the highly deferential standard of review that applies to claims properly raised in state court,” Thomas wrote. “Permitting federal factfinding would encourage yet more federal litigation of defaulted claims.” 

The dissent blasts the majority for effectively overruling Martinez as well as Trevino v. Thaler, which established that prisoners are not at fault for any failure to bring a trial-ineffectiveness claim in state court. 

“It makes no sense to excuse a habeas petitioner’s counsel’s failure to raise a claim altogether because of ineffective assistance in postconviction proceedings, as Martinez and Trevino did, but to fault the same petitioner for that postconviction counsel’s failure to develop evidence in support of the trial-ineffectiveness claim,” Sotomayor wrote. “In so doing, the Court guts Martinez’s and Trevino’s core reasoning.” 

Sotomayor said the court’s precedents allow Jones and Ramirez to bring their cases before federal courts. The question asked of the justices is if they can actually use that opportunity by developing new evidence to support their claims. 

“Under this Court’s precedents, the answer is clear,” Sotomayor wrote. “Martinez and Trevino establish that petitioners are not at fault for any failure to raise their claims in state court in these circumstances. … A petitioner cannot logically be faultless for not bringing a claim because of postconviction counsel’s ineffectiveness, yet at fault for not developing its evidentiary basis for exactly the same reason.” 

The dissent also chastises the majority for focusing on gruesome aspects of the murders, stating that, no matter the brutality of the underlying crime, the Constitution still requires the accused to be protected. 

“The majority sets forth the gruesome nature of the murders with which respondents were charged,” Sotomayor wrote. “Our Constitution insists, however, that no matter how heinous the crime, any conviction must be secured respecting all constitutional protections. The history of respondents’ trials and their state postconviction proceedings illustrates the breakdown in the adversarial system caused by ineffective assistance of counsel, a violation of the Sixth Amendment.” 

Arizona Solicitor General Brunn Wall Roysden III did not return a request for comment, nor did Robert Mark Loeb, an attorney with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe representing Ramirez and Jones.

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