Supreme Court Considers Whether People on Death Row Can Present New Evidence


The Supreme Court heard oral argument last Wednesday in a case that has important implications for people with death sentences across the country.

The case concerns the application of the Court’s 2012 decision in Martinez v. Ryan, which held that a person whose postconviction lawyer fails to adequately challenge their trial lawyer’s ineffective performance may raise the ineffectiveness claim for the first time in federal court.

Martinez provided a critical safeguard for people sentenced to death who did not receive adequate review of their claims in state postconviction proceedings.

In the cases of Barry Jones and David Ramirez—whose federal habeas lawyers discovered evidence of innocence, and of intellectual disability and childhood abuse, respectively, that their postconviction counsel failed to discover—a federal appellate court applied Martinez to allow the newly developed evidence to be considered by the federal court in deciding the claims that trial counsel was ineffective.

As a result, Mr. Jones was granted a new trial and Mr. Ramirez was granted an evidentiary hearing in federal court.

Arizona prosecutors appealed, arguing in the combined case of Shinn v. Ramirez that Martinez conflicts with the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a federal law passed in 1996 that severely restricts incarcerated and death-sentenced people’s access to federal habeas corpus review.

Counsel for the State argued last week that the AEDPA bars a federal court from considering any evidence that was not presented in state court, even if Martinez allows the ineffectiveness claim to be raised in federal court.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts questioned the inherent conflict in Arizona’s position, with Justice Thomas noting that it would be “rather odd” to “excuse a default under Martinez, but not allow the prisoner to make his underlying claim or develop his evidence.”

Chief Justice Roberts likewise pressed the State, observing that in Martinez, the Court “obviously carefully crafted an opinion to give you the right to raise an ineffective assistance claim, to make sure it’s considered at least once.”

He continued: “[I]f you do get the right to raise the claim for the first time, because your counsel was incompetent before, surely you have the right to get the evidence that’s necessary to support your claim.”