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Supreme Court decision makes it tougher for inmates to win release from prison


Photo of the Supreme Court of the United States, Washington DC.

Kent Nishimura | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

In Monday’s ruling, the Supreme Court put restrictions on federal courts holding evidentiary hearings. They can also consider any new evidence of prison inmates claiming that their attorneys failed to give them adequate legal representation.

Six of six conservatives on the Supreme Court voted for the majority. The case involved two Arizona State Prison inmates who were being executed in separate murder cases. They challenged the legality and legitimacy of their imprisonments.

Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Clarence Thomas and three other liberal justices disapproved of the court’s majority opinion.

Thomas believes that Arizona’s Federal District Court erred when it considered new evidence from Barry Lee Jones and David Martinez Ramirez to back claims that they had provided “ineffective counsel assistance” during post-conviction proceedings.

Thomas stated that federal courts cannot consider evidence not already in the record of the state court case.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her passionate disapproval, called the majority’s opinion “perverse” as well as “illogical”. Justice Sonia Sotomayor stated that it would have a “devastating result” for prisoners beyond those in Monday’s case.

“The Court downplays or completely ignores the seriousness of the failures in the state systems.”
Sotomayor stated that these were the two most important cases.

To put it simply: There were two trial lawyers who failed to provide the minimum of representation for their clients.
Representatives required under the Constitution might be made because of forces beyond their control. A more extreme malfunctio is difficult to imagine.[n]” Rather than the prejudicial removal of a right which constitutes the foundation for our adversary, she said.

Ramirez, a 15-year old girl who had been with Ramirez since 1989 was found guilty of stabbing her girlfriend. Thomas also noted that Ramirez admitted to raping the girl and was further convicted by police.

Ramirez claimed that his trial attorney provided inadequate assistance in failing to conduct a full “mitigation investigation” in his habeas case. This could have provided evidence that would be useful in arguing that Ramirez should not get the death sentence.

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Jones was convicted in 1994 of killing the 4-year old daughter of his girlfriend and also of sexual assaulting the child.

Jones’s new lawyer claimed that Jones failed to properly investigate the evidence which could have proved that Jones had taken care of his child while he was away. Jones’ original postconviction attorney was not qualified to represent capital cases. The new attorney also claimed that Jones failed to properly investigate Jones’ ineffective legal assistance at trial.

In both instances, the Arizona federal district court judges had initially ruled in favor of their claim of ineffective counsel because they hadn’t been presented properly in state court.

However, Ramirez’s district judge granted him permission to amend the state court records “with evidence not present in state courts to support his case to justify the procedural default,” the Monday ruling indicated.

The federal judge in Jones’s case heard evidence from Jones that Jones had received ineffective support in his state court bid for post-conviction relief.

Arizona appealed federal court decisions and asked the Supreme Court for help. According to the state, federal habeas laws do not permit a federal court to order “evidence development”. This was because “postconviction counsel” is accused of negligently failing to create the record for the state-court.

Thomas accepted the ruling.

Thomas wrote, “We now consider that a federal habeas judge may not hold an evidentiary proceeding or otherwise consider evidence outside the state-court records based on state postconviction counsel’s ineffective assistance,”

Thomas wrote, “Serial relitigation in the end of criminal convictions is a serious offense to the deterrent and retributive functions of criminal law.”

Sotomayor stated in her dissension that the “Sixth Amendment” guarantees criminal defendants effective counsel during trial.

Sotomayor stated that the Court had recognized this right as “a bedrock principle” that forms the foundation for criminal justice’s adversary system.

She wrote that “Today however, the Court weakens the authority of the federal courts to safeguard this right.”

Sotomayor stated, “The Court’s decision will leave many persons who were convicted under the Sixth Amendment facing incarceration and even execution without any meaningful opportunity to protect their rights to counsel.”