The verdict is a major defeat for two death row inmates who said they had compelling allegations that their prosecutors have failed to pursue.
In addition, it is becoming more difficult for inmates across the country to enforce claims that they received ineffective counsel in post-conviction proceedings in state courts.
The 6-3 opinion was written by Judge Clarence Thomas.
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Thomas suggested that allowing such claims would create unnecessary delays, and he said federal courts “must have unwavering respect for the vital importance of hearing a criminal case in state courts.”
“Series trials for retrial of final convictions undermine the finality that is essential to both the retaliatory and deterrent functions of criminal law,” he wrote. In his decision, Thomas emphasized the brutality of the crimes.
He called the “intervention” by federal courts an “affront to the state and its citizens who returned a guilty verdict,” and said federal courts “years later” lack the “competence and authority to rehear a state’s criminal case.”
“An empty” constitutional guarantee
The three liberal judges disagreed. In a stinging dissent, Judge Sonia Sotomayor called the decision “perverse” and said the court had gutted a precedent. Majority opinion, she wrote, “reduces” the constitutional rights of many prisoners.
“The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to effective assistance from counsel at trial,” wrote Sotomayor. “Today, however, the court is impeding the power of the federal courts to uphold that right.”
She said that while the majority exposes “the gruesome nature” of the crimes, the “Constitution” insists that no matter “how heinous the crime, every conviction must be secured with every constitutional safeguard.”
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The inmates involved were not at fault because their attorneys failed to develop evidence, and they should have been able to go to federal court, Sotomayor said.
“To put it bluntly, two men whose trial attorneys have failed to provide even the minimum level of representation required by the Constitution could be executed because forces beyond their control prevented them from defending their constitutional right to counsel,” wrote Sotomayor.
She said the Sixth Amendment guarantee to inmates “is now empty.”
The case was closely watched by those seeking exoneration on death row. According to one of these groups, the Innocence Project, since 1989 nearly 3,000 people have been unjustly convicted of crimes, and since 1973 186 people on death row have been exonerated.
Normally, an inmate cannot present new evidence of his innocence in federal court if it was the inmate’s fault for failing to present the evidence in state court. But the Supreme Court has previously said if the failure to collect the evidence was due to an ineffective attorney in state court — both at trial and on appeal — the inmate could raise the matter in federal court .
A “tragic loss” for two death row inmates
“It’s hard to overstate how significant this technical ruling is for state prisoners who wish to argue that they did not receive the effective assistance of a lawyer guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment,” said Steve Vladeck, a CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas Law School.
“Typically, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to prove that your attorney was ineffective without presenting new evidence, since that ineffectiveness often involves evidence that was not presented,” Vladeck said. “But today’s ruling makes it impossible for prisoners to rely on new evidence to prove the attorney representing them in state post-sentencing trials was ineffective.”
In the present case, Arizona pointed to a federal statute that interpreted it to mean that an inmate could not bring a claim in federal court unless it had been brought in state court.
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Attorneys for the inmates said Arizona misunderstood the law because the inmate could not be held responsible for the error of their state-appointed attorney.
Barry Jones, one of the inmates, argued that there was compelling evidence of his innocence for a murder charge and received relief from the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He is now trying to either be released or tried again. Another inmate, David Ramirez, did not plead his innocence, but said there was compelling evidence his prosecutor failed to investigate his claims of intellectual disability.
After Monday’s ruling, her attorney, Robert Loeb, said the court’s decision represented a “tragic loss” for his clients, but would also have far-reaching implications.
“The court’s decision effectively shuts down the federal courts for many prisoners with extremely serious, unconstitutional, void legal representation claims simply because they have been unlucky enough to have incompetent attorneys at every stage of the state court process,” Loeb said.
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https://abc13.com/supreme-court-scotus-decision-death-row-inmates-barry-lee-jones/11885967/ SCOTUS Ruling: Supreme Court ruling makes it harder for prisoners to argue they didn’t have effective counsel