The Supreme Court’s right-wingers decided 6-3 this month in a shocking opinion that was divided along ideological lines that people who receive ineffective counsel are not allowed to present new evidence in federal court to prove their innocence. The decision was made in Shinn v. Ramirez and Jones — which flies in the face of the court’s recent precedents protecting the Sixth Amendment right to counsel — even people who can demonstrate their innocence could be subjected to the shameful practice of capital punishment.
“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,” Sonia Sotomayor wrote in dissent, adding that “the court hamstrings the federal courts’ authority to safeguard that right” and “reduces to rubble” many Sixth Amendment constitutional rights.
The ramifications of the ShinnThese decisions are scary. “When a capital defendant is poorly represented by an appointee of the State, the State gets to defend the unfairly won conviction in federal court and bar the defendant from even showing that crucial evidence was omitted from the trial due to lawyer malfeasance,” appellate habeas defense attorney Chuck Sevilla told Truthout. “This obvious Kafkaesque scenario could, and probably will, lead to the execution of the innocent.”
The court used two Arizona cases to reach its decision.
Barry Lee Jones’ Case
In 1994, Barry Lee Jones was charged with murdering his girlfriend’s 4-year-old daughter, Rachel Gray. The prosecution argued that Rachel died from an injury while in Jones’s care. But Jones’s trial attorney didn’t perform any investigation, which would have uncovered medical evidence that Rachel’s fatal injury could not have progressed as rapidly as the prosecution claimed. This evidence may have demonstrated Rachel was injured when she wasn’t in Jones’s care. This evidence was not presented to the jury, and Jones was convicted for murder. The trial judge sentenced Jones.
Arizona law didn’t allow Jones to argue on direct appeal that his trial lawyer provided him with ineffective assistance of counsel. Jones raised this issue for the first time in a state habeas Corpus proceeding. Jones was again deemed incompetent. lacked the minimum qualificationsFor appointment in a capital case. The new lawyer also carried out almost no investigation, failing to investigate the ineffective assistance of Jones’s trial attorney. The state habeas lawyer didn’t even allege in the habeas petition that Jones’s trial lawyer was ineffective for failing to investigate the medical evidence. The Arizona courts denied Jones’s habeas petition.
Jones filed a petition in Federal District Court for habeas Corpus. A competent attorney represented him. The District Court held an evidentiary hearing where Jones’s lawyer presented exonerating evidence that could have been offered by his trial counsel and state habeas counsel. After the hearing, the District Court found that Jones’s state habeas lawyer provided ineffective assistance of counsel and therefore Jones could raise the issue for the first time in federal court. The District Court also concluded that there was a “reasonable probability that the jury would not have unanimously convicted [Jones] of any of the counts” if Jones’s trial attorney had “adequately investigated and presented medical and other expert testimony to rebut the State’s theory” of Jones’s guilt.
Arizona appealed the District Court’s decision, arguing that the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) prevented the District Court from considering new evidence. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling.
The Case of David Ramirez
David Ramirez was convicted for capital murders of his girlfriend, and her daughter. During the sentencing stage, a psychologist was appointed by the state court to conduct a mental evaluation of Ramirez. But Ramirez’s trial lawyer failed to provide the psychologist with evidence that Ramirez had an intellectual disability which could mitigate against a death sentence and in favor of life in prison without parole. Ramirez was sentenced.
Ramirez was also appointed a lawyer to represent him in his state habeas case. Ramirez was able to claim that he received ineffective counsel. This was also like Jones. Again, as in Jones’s case, Ramirez’s state habeas attorney didn’t conduct an investigation despite knowing that Ramirez might suffer from intellectual disabilities. Neither did Ramirez’s state habeas attorney argue that trial counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel by not developing and presenting mitigating evidence. The Arizona courts denied Ramirez’s habeas petition.
A Federal District Court appointed the Arizona Federal Public Defender to represent Ramirez in a federal habeas proceeding, citing “concerns regarding the quality” of his prior attorneys. Ramirez argued that his trial counsel had not provided him with effective assistance in his habeas case. He submitted evidence from family members, who had never been contacted by Ramirez’s trial lawyer and his state habeas lawyer. This evidence demonstrated that Ramirez ate on the floor growing up and slept on dirty mattresses in places filthy with animal feces; that his mother beat him with electrical cords; and that he had multiple apparent developmental delays, which included “delayed walking, potty training, and speech” and he was unable to engage in basic hygiene or use eating utensils.
The court-appointed psychologist who evaluated Ramirez for the sentencing phase of the trial told the habeas court that if the trial attorney had given him Ramirez’s school records and IQ scores, he would have insisted on comprehensive testing. Ramirez’s trial counsel submitted an affidavit saying she wasn’t prepared to handle “the representation of someone as mentally disturbed as … Ramirez.”
But the District Court denied Ramirez’s ineffectiveness claim and refused to allow him to present further evidence in the federal habeas proceeding. Arizona conceded that Ramirez’s state habeas lawyer performed deficiently. The Ninth Circuit reversed and directed the District Court to receive evidence to support Ramirez’s ineffectiveness claim, saying he had been “precluded from such development because of his post-conviction counsel’s ineffective representation.”
The Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit decisions in both Jones’s and Ramirez’s cases.
Ineffective Counsel Is Now a Catch-22 for Defendants
2012 saw the Supreme Court rule in Martinez v. RyanDefendants could claim that they were provided ineffective counsel in federal court for the first time. However, the court ruled in favor of defendants on May 23, 2022. Shinn These defendants cannot provide evidence to support the claims.
Defendants who are convicted by a state court must first bring a constitutional challenge to their convictions. If they don’t, they are in “procedural default” and a federal court cannot review their constitutional claims. In Martinez, however, the court held that if a state allows a prisoner to raise a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel for the first time in a state habeas corpus proceeding (after a direct appeal has already been heard), the lawyer’s ineffectiveness at the habeas stage constitutes “cause” to excuse the procedural default.
AEDPA (with some exceptions) forbids a federal court from holding an evidentiary hearing where the defendant “has failed to develop the factual basis of a claim in State court proceedings.”
The issue in ShinnHow to reconcile Martinez’s permission for a prisoner to claim ineffective assistance of trial counsel with AEDPA’s prohibition on presenting evidence to support that claim.
Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion in ShinnSamuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh acted for him. The court held that “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.”
Trapping defendants in a Catch-22 conundrum, the majority ruled that defendants are “at fault” for failing to raise a claim of their lawyer’s ineffectiveness in state court, even though that failure was caused by the errors of their lawyer.
In her dissent, joined by Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, Sotomayor explained the unfairness of the majority’s holding. She wrote, “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.”
Ironically, while the majority held that Jones and Ramirez had defaulted by not raising their claims in the lower court, the right-wingers excused the state from failing to object to the evidentiary development of Ramirez’s claim and raising an AEDPA argument in the District Court or in the Ninth Circuit. In a footnote, Thomas wrote, “Because we have discretion to forgive any forfeiture, and because ‘our deciding the matter now will reduce the likelihood of further litigation’ in a 30-year-old murder case, [citation omitted], we choose to forgive the State’s forfeiture before the District Court.”
Sotomayor called the majority opinion “perverse” and “illogical” and wrote that it “makes no sense.” She noted that since claims of ineffective assistance often involve errors of omission (such as the failure to properly investigate), the proof of ineffectiveness will necessarily require evidence outside of the trial record.
“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,” Sotomayor wrote.
The court’s ruling has alarming implications. It will prohibit defendants from presenting evidence of innocence. “Without ineffective assistance of counsel claims, there is no procedural vehicle to bring evidence of actual innocence in most states,” Michigan law professor Andrew Fleischman tweeted.
Nearly 3,000 people were wrongfully convicted since 1989. according to the Innocence ProjectSince 1973, 186 people who were sentenced to death were exonerated.
As I wrote in 2014 the death penalty leads people to execution, is racist in its application, imposition, and deters homicide. It is also likely unconstitutional and flouts the laws of almost all industrialized nations that have abolished capital punishment.
Shinn “effectively ensures that innocent people will remain imprisoned,” Salon’s Mark Joseph Stern tweeted. This means that innocent people will be executed, as habeas lawyer Sevilla predicts.
Robert Loeb, the attorney who represented Jones and Ramirez at the Supreme Court, called it the Shinn decision “tragic,” not just for his clients but also for myriad prisoners. “The court’s decision effectively closes the federal courts to many prisoners with extremely serious constitutional ineffective trial counsel claims simply because they were unlucky enough to have incompetent lawyers at every stage of state court proceedings,” he said.
Stern sees Shinn as one more in “the unceasing stream of callous, radical, reactionary decisions coming from the Supreme Court,” which “is fairly easy to miss because so many of them involve complicated points of law.” Stern added, “But the conservative majority is very much in the midst of a revolution. And it is a brutal one.”