If you haven’t heard it In case you missed it: on May 23 on the 23rd of May, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prisoners of state don’t have a constitutional right to introduce new evidence before federal judges to establish that their trial lawyer had no effect.
The judge analyzed the case of two Arizona prisoner, David Martinez Ramirez and Barry Jones. Both prisoners were found guilty of capital crime and executed in the state trial. When they were sentenced to death, Arizona Supreme Court denied post-conviction relief, both brought federal lawsuits arguing that their state trial attorneys were not effective.
Ramirez asserted that his state lawyers were not able to examine evidence of the possibility of having an intellectual disability, which could be the cause of a lower sentence. Jones claimed that the state attorneys on his behalf filed a motion an investigation into exonerating evidence.
However, both faced difficulties in presenting the information in federal habeas-corpus cases. As their lawyers did not examine the evidence, it wasn’t part of the record of the state court. Lower courts squabbled over the issue of whether federal habeas laws and previous Supreme Court precedent allowed them to consider the evidence.
In Shinn in Shinn. Martinez Ramirez, the Supreme Court basically says, “You may bring the case before a federal court, however there is no evidence that supports the claim.”
Past Cases open the Door …
Federal judges use writs of habeas corpus (Latin which means “that you own the corpse”) to decide whether the state’s decision to detain a prisoner is in accordance with the Constitution. If a person has exhausted every option available in the state court system to attempt and change their verdict and is granted the writ to habeas corpus in accordance with federal law. The federal courts that hear the process generally do not consider any evidence not provided before the state court. If a prisoner in the state tries to bring up new questions during a federal habeass hearing then the courts dismiss these for being a “procedural error.”
In 2012 in 2012, in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled 7-1 in Martinez v. Ryan that a state prisoner may bring unsatisfactory assistance of counsel cases before federal courts in a specific circumstance. If they prove that they failed to bring the matter before the state court because the post-conviction lawyer was ineffective, as wellineffective and ineffective, they are able to overcome the procedural error.
… and Justice Thomas Slams It
Justice Clarence Thomas dissented in Martinez v. Ryan and took an opportunity to lead the court in a different direction through the writing of his opinions on Shinn. Thomas says that the decision to allow federal courts to listen to new evidence about the ineffective aid of attorneys “encourages prisoners to use sandbags in state court.” Although this Shinnopinion isn’t a ruling to alter the decision in Martinez and Ryan. Ryan, it sure does weaken the court’s ruling in 2012.
Federal courts are able to hear fresh evidence in a habeas process when it is subject to two of the exceptions listed in the law:
- The Supreme Court hands down a new constitutional law rule that is retroactive,
- The new information would not be found
A majority of judges ruled that the post-conviction attorney’s inability to prepare an official state court record doesn’t fit within any of these exemptions. They found that allowing the federal habeas court to conduct an evidentiary proceeding of the kind is a violation of sovereign rights of the state.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor penned a passionate dissent as did Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer and saying that majority opinion “gives an insignificant amount of attention to severe flaws in the adversarial system which occurred in these cases. These are breakdowns like the ones federal habeas reviews are designed to rectify.”
Congress may amend the statute in order to incorporate an exemption for inadequate assistance from counsel. However, we recognize that Congress isn’t always efficient too. In a statement reacted to the Shinn ruling The Innocence Project’s director of operations said that “[t]his decision could put hundreds of innocent individuals in the dreadful position without a judge to consider their real assertions of innocence.” In the case of certain people, it’s literally the death penalty.
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