December 3, 2022
In a lengthy opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas ruled against two Arizona death row inmates who claimed ineffective assistance of counsel both during trial and post-conviction.

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The Supreme Court ruled against two Arizona death row inmates seeking release who tried to introduce evidence in federal court proceedings beyond what had been presented in state court.

In a 6-3 decision, Justice Clarence Thomas pointed to federal statute and case law to support the conclusion that federal courts are severely limited in what evidence may be brought before them in habeas corpus applications. The court ruled that in the cases of David Martinez Ramirez and Barry Lee Jones, they could not rely on the excuse of ineffective assistance of post-conviction counsel to argue that their lawyers should have previously introduced such evidence.

“[W]e have repeatedly reaffirmed that there is no constitutional right to counsel in state postconviction proceedings” Justice Thomas wrote. He stated that the prisoner has to live with any attorney error unless it rises to the level of being “constitutionally ineffective.”

Because there is no constitutional right to have a lawyer after conviction, that standard is impossible to meet.

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Both Ramirez and Jones were convicted of murdering and sexually assaulting children. Both claimed ineffective assistance of counsel at the trial level and at the post-conviction level.

Ramirez claimed that his lawyer failed to present mitigating evidence during sentencing, but he did not raise this issue until he filed a state habeas petition that a state court ruled was too late. He then went to federal district court, which first denied him because he defaulted by being too late in state court. After he claimed that his post-conviction lawyer was also ineffective, the district court allowed him to bring new evidence to support his request to have his claim heard despite the default.

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Jones similarly was convicted and after going through the state post-conviction process eventually turned to federal court,, which said that he was also barred like Ramirez due to default. He too had claimed ineffective post-conviction counsel and was afforded a hearing where he presented new evidence.

In both cases, Arizona appealed, arguing that these hearings were not permitted by federal law. In both cases, federal circuit courts ruled for the defendants.

The Supreme Court’s majority agreed with Arizona, stating that Ramirez and Jones cannot use errors by their post-conviction attorneys as a reason to seek release, “state postconviction counsel’s ineffective assistance in developing the state-court record is attributed to the prisoner.”

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In a dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor claimed that the majority’s ruling makes it more difficult for a defendant to protect their right to effective counsel.

“Today,” Sotomayor wrote, “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.”

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The dissent pointed to evidence in both cases that the defendants’ trial lawyers failed to present in court. For Ramirez, it was evidence that he has an intellectual disability, and for Jones it was evidence that the child victim’s injuries were sustained when she was not with him. In both cases, Sotomayor wrote, post-conviction attorneys failed to conduct proper investigations.

“For the subset of these petitioners who receive ineffective assistance both at trial and in state postconviction proceedings, the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee is now an empty one,” Sotomayor wrote. “Many, if not most, individuals in this position will have no recourse and no opportunity for relief.”