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

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The Supreme Court of the USA constructing, photographed on Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Kent Nishimura | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

The Supreme Court in a ruling Monday made it tougher for prison inmates to win release, barring federal courts from holding evidentiary hearings or considering latest evidence of claims that their attorneys didn’t provide them with adequate legal representation after convictions in state court.

All six of the Supreme Court’s conservatives voted in the bulk within the case, which related to 2 Arizona state prison inmates on death row for separate murders. They challenged the legality of their incarcerations.

The court’s three liberal justices all dissented from the bulk opinion, which Justice Clarence Thomas wrote.

Thomas’ opinion says that Arizona’s federal district court erred in considering latest evidence presented by the inmates, David Martinez Ramirez and Barry Lee Jones, to support claims that their defense lawyers had given “ineffective assistance of counsel” in post-conviction proceedings.

Thomas said federal courts can only consider evidence already presented within the state court record of the case.

In her blistering dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor called the bulk opinion “perverse” and “illogical.” She said it is going to have a “devastating consequence” for inmates beyond the 2 within the case decided Monday.

“The Court understates, or ignores altogether, the gravity of the state systems’ failures
in these two cases,” Sotomayor wrote.

“To place it bluntly: Two men whose trial attorneys didn’t provide even the bare minimum level of
representation required by the Structure could also be executed because forces outside of their control prevented them from vindicating their constitutional right to counsel. It is difficult to assume a more ‘extreme malfunctio[n]’ … than the prejudicial deprivation of a right that constitutes the ‘foundation for our adversary system,'” she wrote.

Ramirez was convicted of fatally stabbing his girlfriend and her 15-year-old daughter in 1989. Police also found evidence that he had raped the daughter, and Ramirez confessed to doing so, Thomas noted in his opinion.

Ramirez, in his habeas petition, argued that his trial lawyer provided ineffective assistance by failing to perform a whole “mitigation investigation.” It could have obtained evidence that may be used to argue during sentencing that he mustn’t receive the death penalty.

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Jones was convicted of fatally beating the 4-year-old daughter of his girlfriend, and of sexually assaulting the kid, in 1994.

In his habeas petition in federal court, Jones’ latest lawyer alleged that his trial attorney failed to analyze evidence that might have shown that the kid sustained the injuries that led to her death while not in his care. The brand new lawyer also argued that Jones’ original post-conviction attorney, who lacked minimum qualifications for lawyers appointed in capital cases, failed to analyze the ineffective assistance from Jones’ attorney at trial.

Arizona federal district court judges in each cases initially had ruled that their claims of ineffective assistance of counsel were barred in federal court because that they had not been properly presented in state court after they were convicted.

However the district judge in Ramirez’s case then allowed him to complement the state court record “with evidence not presented in state court to support his case to excuse the procedural default,” Monday’s ruling noted.

In Jones’ case, the federal judge held a lengthy hearing to contemplate evidence that his lawyer had provided ineffective assistance to his bid for post-conviction relief in state court.

The state of Arizona, in its appeal of rulings in federal courts, asked the Supreme Court to step in. The state argued that the federal habeas law doesn’t allow a federal court “to order evidentiary development” on the grounds that “postconviction counsel is alleged to have negligently did not develop the state-court record.”

Thomas’s ruling agreed.

“We now hold that … a federal habeas court may not conduct an evidentiary hearing or otherwise consider evidence beyond the state-court record based on ineffective assistance of state postconviction counsel,” Thomas wrote.

Thomas also wrote that “serial relitigation of ultimate convictions undermines the finality that ‘is crucial to each the retributive and deterrent functions of criminal law.'”

In her dissent, Sotomayor noted that the structure’s “Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the suitable 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,” Sotomayor wrote.

“Today, nonetheless, the Court hamstrings the federal courts’ authority to safeguard that right,” she wrote.

Sotomayor added: “The Court’s decision will leave many individuals who were convicted in violation of the Sixth Amendment to face incarceration and even execution with none meaningful likelihood to vindicate their right to counsel.”

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