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Supreme Court Sides with Arizona on Death-Row Evidence Appeals (1)

May 23, 2022, 2:16 PMUpdated: May 23, 2022, 2:44 PM

The US Supreme Court ruled two death row inmates can’t raise evidence of ineffective counsel during a federal habeas appeal since they didn’t present it in state court.

The ruling announced Monday broke along ideological lines, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing for the 6-3 majority.

“To respect our system of dual sovereignty, the availability of habeas relief is narrowly circumscribed,” Thomas said, adding that “only rarely may a federal habeas court hear a claim or consider evidence that a prisoner did not previously present to the state courts.”

David Martinez Ramirez and Barry Jones were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in separate state-court cases. Arizona officials said the pair had the chance to raise ineffective-assistance-of-trial-counsel claims in state postconviction proceedings, so they’re bound by the state-court record and can’t develop new evidence on federal habeas review.

The defendants said their state postconviction lawyers were ineffective, too, so federal habeas review is the way to develop their claims.

The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act bars federal habeas evidentiary hearings if a defendant “has failed to develop the factual basis of a claim in State court proceedings.” But in 2012, the Supreme Court in Martinez v. Ryan said failing to raise ineffective trial counsel claims is excused if state postconviction counsel was ineffective, too.

Ramirez’s trial counsel failed to pursue evidence of his intellectual disability and history of being abused as a child, the type of issues that capital juries consider in weighing aggravating and mitigating factors. He was sentenced to death for the 1989 murders of his girlfriend Mary Ann Gortarez and her daughter Candie. His state postconviction lawyer didn’t address the issues either and the federal district court rejected his habeas petition. But the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court, ordering the court to allow evidentiary development of his ineffective assistance claim.

In Jones’ case, his counsel failed to probe the state’s police work, medical evidence, and timeline in the 1994 death of four-year-old Rachel Gray. His supporters point to evidence of his innocence. Unlike in Ramirez’s case, a federal district court granted Jones’ habeas petition after holding a hearing. The state appealed and the Ninth Circuit affirmed, so the state had to retry Jones or release him.

Instead, the state challenged the Ninth Circuit rulings for both Ramirez and Jones in a single petition for review, which the justices granted.

Justice Sonia Sotomyaor called the court’s ruling “perverse” and “illogical.”

“The Court gives short shrift to the egregious breakdowns of the adversarial system that occurred in these cases, breakdowns of the type that federal habeas review exists to correct,” Sotomayor said.

The case is Shinn v. Ramirez and Jones, U.S., No. 20-1009.

(Updates with quotes from the opinion.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com; Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Seth Stern at sstern@bloomberglaw.com; John Crawley at jcrawley@bloomberglaw.com