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Supreme Court hobbles challenges by inmates based on poor legal representation

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that state prisoners have no constitutional right to present new evidence in federal court to support claims they were inadequately represented at trial and on appeal in state courts.
Garen Meguerian
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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that state prisoners have no constitutional right to present new evidence in federal court to support claims they were inadequately represented at trial and on appeal in state courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that state prisoners have no constitutional right to present new evidence in federal court to support their claims that they were represented at trial and on appeal in state courts by unqualified or otherwise deficient lawyers. The vote was 6-to-3, along ideological lines.

In 2012 the court ruled that when a state court "substantially" interferes with a defendant's constitutional right to be represented by counsel, the defendant, with a new lawyer, may appeal to federal court to show that he was denied his right to effective counsel. Back then, the majority was 7-to-2, with Justice Clarence Thomas in dissent. On Monday Thomas wrote the majority decision hollowing out that 2012 ruling on behalf of the court's new six-justice conservative super majority.

He said that federal courts may not hear "new evidence" obtained after conviction to show how deficient the trial or appellate lawyer in state court was. To allow such evidence to be presented in federal court, he said, "encourages prisoners to sandbag state courts," depriving the states of "the finality that is essential to both the retributive and deterrent function of criminal law."

What the opinion does

Writing for the three dissenters, Justice Sonia Sotomayor called the decision "perverse," and "illogical." The Sixth Amendment "guarantees criminal defendants the right to effective assistance of counsel at trial," she said. "Today, however, the court hamstrings the federal courts' authority to safeguard that right."

University of Michigan law professor Leah Litman sums up the decision this way: "Basically you can have a federal court hear the claim, you just can't present any evidence to support that claim because Congress... greatly restricted the availability of evidentiary hearings."

"The opinion leaves innocent people in the nightmarish position of having no court to go to for justice," said Christina Swarns, executive director of the Innocence Project.

The death penalty cases in question

She pointed to one of the cases before the court as illustrative. The defendant, Barry Jones, was sentenced to death for the brutal sexual assault and killing of a 4-year-old girl. But his court-appointed trial court lawyer did not investigate the facts of the case. Arizona law does not allow the first post-conviction appeal to raise the question of ineffective assistance of counsel, and on the second appeal, the appellate lawyer did not raise the question either. Only when federal public defenders were brought into the case for a federal court hearing, did they examine the medical evidence, and consult experts who later testified that the injuries inflicted on the child occurred not when the prosecution claimed, but at a time when Jones was nowhere near the child and could not have inflicted them. The federal judge hearing the case found that both the defense lawyer at trial, and the appellate lawyer in state court had provided ineffective assistance of counsel. A unanimous panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of appeals agreed, meaning that if the decision had held, the state would have had to retry Jones or release him.

A second case before the court today did not involve a claim of innocence. David Ramirez didn't dispute that he killed his girlfriend and her 15-year-old daughter. But when his case got to federal court, his federal public defenders presented evidence of his intellectual disability and his horrific childhood, mitigating evidence that the lawyer appointed to represent Ramirez at trial did not present to the jury in an effort to prevent a sentence of death.

As the Innocence Project's Swarns sees things, Arizona has not raised the pay scale for court appointed lawyers in some 30 years. The lawyers have inadequate resources to investigate and hire experts, and the courts often waive the lawyer qualification requirements in order to get lawyers in the door to represent those who cannot afford a lawyer on appeal.

"We know at the Innocence Project, based on 30 years of representing innocent people who have been wrongly convicted, that ineffective assistance of counsel is one of the leading causes of wrongful conviction in this country," she said.

For defendant, Jones, who contends he is innocent, and for Ramirez, their only recourse now to avoid execution is an appeal to the governor of Arizona for clemency. They have run the course of their appeals and come up short. So too will many others.

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Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.