U.S. Supreme Court Recognizes New Remedy for Prisoners Whose Postconviction Lawyers Fail to Raise Ineffectiveness of Trial Counsel


The United States Supreme Court today decided in Martinez v. Ryan that a prisoner whose postconviction lawyer fails to adequately challenge his trial lawyer’s ineffective performance may raise the claim for the first time in federal court.

People convicted and sentenced to prison have a constitutional right to counsel on direct appeal of their cases, but the Supreme Court has not held that there is a constitutional right to counsel in collateral proceedings.

The Court recognized that collateral proceedings provided Luis Martinez’s first chance to raise a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. Because this “initial-review collateral proceeding” is a prisoner’s “one and only” chance to raise an ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claim, the Court held that a federal habeas court should not be barred from hearing a substantial claim of ineffective assistance at trial if, in the initial-review collateral proceeding, there was no counsel or counsel in that proceeding was ineffective.

The Court reasoned that a prisoner has no fair opportunity to challenge his trial lawyer’s ineffectiveness without an effective attorney. “The prisoner, unlearned in the law, may not comply with the State’s procedural rules or may misapprehend the substantive details of federal constitutional law. While confined to prison, the prisoner is in no position to develop the evidentiary basis for a claim of ineffective assistance, which often turns on evidence outside the trial record.” The Court concluded: “To present a claim of ineffective assistance at trial in accordance with the State’s procedures, then, a prisoner likely needs an effective attorney.”

The Court’s decision in Martinez is highly significant in Alabama because, unlike every other state in the country that uses the death penalty, Alabama does not provide legal assistance to death row inmates to challenge the inadequate representation they received at trial.

The Supreme Court recognized these deficiencies in Alabama’s death penalty system, including the fact that “some prisoners sentenced to death receive no postconviction representation at all,” in its decision earlier this term in Maples v. Thomas, which held that Alabama death row prisoner Cory Maples cannot be denied federal court review of his conviction and death sentence because his volunteer lawyers abandoned him during state court proceedings.