The ruling is a major defeat for two death row inmates who said they had compelling allegations that their lawyers did not pursue.
Additionally, it will be more difficult for inmates across the country to assert their claims that they received ineffective counsel at the state court level in post-conviction proceedings.
Opinion 6-3 was written by Judge Clarence Thomas.
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Thomas suggested that allowing such claims to proceed would cause unnecessary delays, and he said federal courts “must give unwavering respect to the centrality of trying a criminal case in a court of law.” State”.
“The serial questioning of final convictions undermines the finality that is essential to both the retributive and deterrent functions of criminal law,” he wrote. In his ruling, Thomas pointed to the brutality of the crimes.
He called the federal courts’ “intervention” an “affront to the state and its citizens who returned a guilty verdict” and said the federal courts “years later” did not have “the jurisdiction and authority to revive a State’s criminal case”.
An “empty” constitutional guarantee
The three liberal justices expressed their dissent. In a scathing dissent, Judge Sonia Sotomayor called the ruling “perverse” and said the court had gutted precedent. The majority opinion, she writes, “ruins” many of the constitutional rights of inmates.
“The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to effective counsel at trial,” Sotomayor wrote. “Today, however, the court is fettering the authority of the federal courts to protect that right.”
She said that while the majority “states the horrific nature” of the crimes, the “Constitution insists” that, regardless of “the seriousness of the crime, any conviction must be obtained with due respect for all constitutional protections”.
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The inmates involved were not responsible for their attorneys’ failure to develop evidence, and they should have been able to sue in federal court, Sotomayor said.
“To put it bluntly: two men whose lawyers failed to provide even the minimum level of representation required by the Constitution can be executed because forces beyond their control prevented them from exercising their constitutional right to counsel” , wrote Sotomayor.
She said the Sixth Amendment guarantee to inmates “is now void.”
The case was closely watched by those seeking death row exoneration. According to one such group, the Innocence Project, nearly 3,000 people have been wrongfully convicted of crimes since 1989, and since 1973, 186 people on death row have been exonerated.
Normally, an inmate cannot bring new evidence of innocence in federal court when it was the inmate’s fault for not raising the evidence in state court. But the Supreme Court has previously said that if the failure to present evidence was due to ineffective counsel in state court — both at trial and on appeal — the detainee could raise the issue in federal court.
A “tragic loss” for two prisoners sentenced to death
“It is difficult to overstate the importance of this technical ruling for state prisoners trying to argue that they have not received effective assistance from a Sixth Amendment attorney,” said Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas. Law School.
“It’s usually difficult, if not impossible, to show that your attorney was ineffective without presenting new evidence, because that ineffectiveness is often based on evidence that was not presented,” Vladeck said. “But today’s decision makes it impossible for prisoners to rely on new evidence to prove that the attorney representing them in the state’s post-conviction proceedings was ineffective.”
In the present case, Arizona pointed to a federal law that it interpreted to mean that an inmate could not pursue a claim in federal court if it had not been raised in state court.
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Lawyers for the inmates said Arizona misinterpreted the law because the inmate could not be blamed for the error of his public defender.
Barry Jones, one of the detainees, argued that there was compelling evidence of his innocence on a murder charge and was granted relief in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He is now asking either to be released or to be retried. Another detainee, David Ramirez, did not plead innocent, but said there was compelling evidence that his lawyer failed to explore his claims of intellectual disability.
After Monday’s notice was published, their lawyer, Robert Loeb, said the court’s decision represented a “tragic loss” for his clients but would also have a far-reaching impact.
“The court’s decision effectively closes the federal courts to many prisoners with extremely serious and ineffective trial attorney claims simply because they were unlucky enough to have incompetent attorneys at every stage of the court process” , Loeb said.
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