In a 6-3 decision written by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a federal court may not consider new evidence outside the state-court record in deciding whether the state violated a person’s Sixth Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel at trial.
Shinn v. Ramirez addresses the cases of two men sentenced to death in Arizona after they received constitutionally ineffective assistance at trial.
Barry Jones asserts that he was wrongly sentenced to death for the sexual assault and murder of his girlfriend’s four-year-old daughter. After his court-appointed lawyer failed to investigate and present readily available medical evidence showing that the child was not with Mr. Jones when her injuries were sustained, he claimed his rights were violated and a new trial was required.
Under Arizona law, state postconviction review was Mr. Jones’s first opportunity to challenge his trial lawyer’s ineffectiveness. But the state court appointed him a postconviction lawyer who did not even meet the minimum qualifications required by state law. That lawyer likewise failed to investigate and did not raise the claim that trial counsel was ineffective for failing to challenge the State’s medical evidence.
Not until Mr. Jones was appointed competent counsel in federal habeas proceedings did he have the chance to present the medical evidence, which the federal court relied on to find that both his trial and postconviction lawyers were ineffective. The court granted him a new trial, which was upheld by a unanimous panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals.
In a second case, David Ramirez was sentenced to death in 1990 after his trial lawyer failed to investigate and present evidence of his intellectual disabilities, which might have prevented imposition of the death penalty. His postconviction lawyer likewise failed to investigate his intellectual disability and did not argue that his trial counsel was ineffective.
The federal court appointed the Arizona Federal Public Defender to represent Mr. Ramirez, and they submitted evidence showing that he “grew up eating on the floor and sleeping on dirty mattresses in houses filthy with animal feces; that Ramirez’s mother would beat him with electrical cords; and that Ramirez displayed multiple apparent developmental delays, including ‘delayed walking, potty training, and speech’ and inability to maintain basic hygiene or to use utensils to eat.” The Ninth Circuit held the new evidence was substantial and ordered an evidentiary hearing.
In both cases, the federal courts relied on Martinez v. Ryan and Trevino v. Thaler, 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. These cases provided a critical safeguard for people sentenced to death who had deficient lawyers both at trial and in postconviction proceedings.
Arizona prosecutors appealed the Ninth Circuit’s decisions in Mr. Ramirez and Mr. Jones’s cases. They argued in the Supreme Court that 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, bars a federal court from considering any evidence that was not presented in state court, even if Martinez and Trevino allow the ineffectiveness claim to be raised in federal court.
At oral argument, Justices 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.”
Notwithstanding these concerns, the conservative majority adopted Arizona’s position and effectively gutted the Court’s precedent in service of finality and deference to state courts.
The ruling “all but overrules” Martinez and Trevino, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan. It is “perverse” and “illogical” to hold that 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,” she wrote.
Ineffective assistance claims “frequently turn on errors of omission: evidence that was not obtained, witnesses that were not contacted, experts who were not retained, or investigative leads that were not pursued,” Justice Sotomayor wrote. “Demonstrating that counsel failed to take each of these measures by definition requires evidence beyond the trial record.”
Barring such evidence from being developed or considered in federal court, she wrote, renders Martinez “meaningless in many, if not most, cases,” because petitioners will not be able to prove the ineffectiveness claims that Martinez allows them to raise.
“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,” the dissent concluded. “Many, if not most, individuals in this position will have no recourse and no opportunity for relief.”
The decision means that Mr. Jones and Mr. Ramirez, “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,” Justice Sotomayor wrote.
And in addition to them, the 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.”