Supreme Court throws out 6th Amendment for state defendants


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The Supreme Court on Monday issued a decision that effectively prohibits innocent people from proving they were wrongly convicted, imprisoned, and possibly set to be executed by a state court.

In 2011, the Supreme Court held that state prisoners may raise claims of ineffective counsel in federal court, regardless of whether the issue was first raised in state court at either the trial or post-conviction stage (Martinez v. Ryan). The ruling protected a defendant’s 6th Amendment right to effective counsel.

As the 2011 majority (Kennedy, Roberts, Ginsburg, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan) wrote, “A prisoner’s inability to present a claim of trial error is of particular concern when the claim is one of ineffective assistance of counsel. The right to the effective assistance of counsel at trial is a bedrock principle in our justice system.”

Where, under state law, claims of ineffective assistance of trial counsel must be raised in an initial-review collateral proceeding, a procedural default will not bar a federal habeas court 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.

That’s the legalese way of saying that the federal courts can hear a defendant’s claims of ineffective counsel during the state-portion of their case no matter the state procedure for presenting such evidence.

Now, under the Federalist Society’s Supreme Court rule, a new majority hollowed out this constitutional right to effective counsel.


Like Martinez v. Ryan, yesterday’s Supreme Court case also originates in Arizona, where two death row prisoners—David Ramirez and Barry Jones—allege they received ineffective assistance of counsel. Their stories are just as much about the funding crisis for public defenders as they are about the difficulty of proving one’s innocence. Keep the following in mind as you read about their cases:

The indigent defense delivery system in the United States is in a state of crisis. Public defenders routinely handle well over 1,000 cases a year, more than three times the number of cases that the American Bar Association says one attorney can handle effectively. As a result, many defendants sit in jail for months before even speaking to their court-appointed lawyers. And when defendants do meet their attorneys, they are often disappointed to learn that these lawyers are too overwhelmed to provide adequate representation. With public defenders or assigned counsel representing more than 80% of criminal defendants nationwide, the indigent defense crisis is a problem that our criminal justice system can no longer afford to ignore.

Barry Jones

Barry Jones was convicted and sentenced to death on charges that he sexually assaulted and physically abused a 4-year-old girl, causing her death. Jones’ federal lawyers presented evidence that the girl sustained the injuries during a time in which Jones could not have inflicted them—evidence that trial counsel and state post-conviction counsel failed to uncover and present to the court.

The federal district court held that Jones did, indeed, suffer ineffective assistance of counsel, writing that there was a “reasonable probability that the jury would not have unanimously convicted [Jones] of any of the counts” if Jones’ trial counsel had “adequately investigated and presented medical and other expert testimony to rebut the State’s theory” of Jones’ guilt.

Jones’ post-conviction counsel was just as woefully inadequate, as Justice Sonya Sotomayor explained: “Arizona state law sets minimum qualifications that attorneys must meet to be appointed in capital cases like Jones’, but the Arizona Supreme Court waived those requirements in Jones’ case, and the state court appointed postconviction counsel who lacked those qualifications… In short, Jones’ postconviction counsel failed to investigate the ineffective assistance of Jones’ trial counsel.”

The Ninth Circuit affirmed that Jones did not receive effective representation and remanded the case back to the state courts.

  • The following is an excerpt from the Ninth Circuit opinion. The state’s expert witness, forensic pathologist with the Pima County Medical Examiner’s office Dr. John Howard, admitted that he knew that the injuries the girl sustained did not occur during the time period in question, but didn’t inform the jury of this fact: “Dr. Howard explained that if he had been asked the right questions at Jones’s trial, he would have testified truthfully that in his judgment the injury was most consistent with having occurred prior to May 1, but he admitted that he did not make this finding clear to Jones’s jury.”
  • Further reading: “Arizona doubles down on murder theory as the evidence crumbles,” The Intercept.

David Ramirez

David Ramirez was convicted and sentenced to death on charges that he murdered his girlfriend and her daughter. During trial, Ramirez was represented by a public defender who never tried or even observed a capital case and admitted that she was ill-prepared to represent Ramirez. His counsel did not conduct a thorough investigation that would have uncovered evidence that Ramirez is intellectually disabled and had an abusive childhood. His post-conviction counsel likewise did not present such evidence, something the state itself admits was “deficient” assistance of counsel.

Both trial counsel and Ramirez’s expert witness now assert that their methods were flawed and insufficient:

[The public defender] noted that “[t]he mitigating information that we did present was very limited,” and remarked that had she had the information later presented by Ramirez’s family members with first hand knowledge of his childhood, it “would have changed the way I handled both David’s guilt phase and his sentencing phase.”…

[Psychologist] Dr. McMahon also submitted a declaration, indicating that he did not receive Ramirez’s IQ scores or school reports…He also stated that he would not have administered the PPVT IQ test, which is not a comprehensive IQ test, but rather “would have given Mr. Ramirez a comprehensive IQ test.” In addition, Dr. McMahon would not have concluded that Ramirez was not intellectually disabled, because the scores of 70 and 77 on the “more comprehensive WISC IQ test[,] . . . would have indicated to me that Mr. Ramirez may be retarded and it would have greatly expanded the nature of the evaluation I did conduct.”

For these reasons, a unanimous panel of the Ninth Circuit found that post-conviction counsel had failed to raise a “substantial claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel.”

Arizona’s argument

In 1996, Congress passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), a provision of which bars people sentenced in state court from presenting new evidence in federal habeas proceedings—no matter how exculpatory—if the defendant didn’t “develop” that evidence in state court first. Arizona argues that the Ninth Circuit erred by allowing Martinez and Jones to present new evidence (ineffective assistance of counsel) in federal court because it violates the AEDPA.

According to Arizona, the Supreme Court’s 2011 Martinez opinion conflicts with the AEDPA; the state asked the court to resolve the issue.

Supreme Court

The Court’s six-member conservative majority held that there is nothing a federal court can do when a defendant received ineffective assistance at their trial and during post-conviction proceedings. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority overturning its previous Martinez precedent and upholding the AEDPA provision:

Respondents’ primary claim is that a prisoner is not “at fault,” and therefore has not “failed to develop the factual basis of a claim in State court proceedings” if state postconviction counsel negligently failed to develop the state record for a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel. But under AEDPA and our precedents, state postconviction counsel’s ineffective assistance in developing the state-court record is attributed to the prisoner…

In our dual-sovereign system, federal courts must afford unwavering respect to the centrality “of the trial of a criminal case in state court.” …Such intervention is also an affront to the State and its citizens who returned a verdict of guilt after considering the evidence before them. Federal courts, years later, lack the competence and authority to relitigate a State’s criminal case.

In other words, if a state wrongly sentences you to prison or death, you’re shit out of luck because the state must be respected.

Justice Sonya Sotomayor dissented, joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan, writing that the majority’s ruling “makes illusory the protections of the Sixth Amendment.”

The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to the effective assistance of counsel at trial. This Court has recognized that right as “a bedrock principle” that constitutes the very “foundation for our adversary system” of criminal justice. Today, however, the Court hamstrings the federal courts’ authority to safeguard that right. The Court’s 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…

This decision is perverse. It is illogical: It makes no sense to excuse a habeas petitioner’s counsel’s failure to raise a claim altogether because of ineffective assistance in postconviction proceedings, as Martinez and Trevino did, but to fault the same petitioner for that postconviction counsel’s failure to develop evidence in support of the trial-ineffectiveness claim. In so doing, the Court guts Martinez’s and Trevino’s core reasoning.

Barry Jones, David Ramirez, and others like them will be put to death despite their innocence or intellectual disabilities due to the rightwing capture of the Supreme Court.