Supreme Court Ruling Makes It Harder For Prisoners To Argue They Had Ineffective Counsel

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The US Supreme Court is reflected in a puddle of water in Washington, DC, on April 5, 2022
The US Supreme Court is reflected in a puddle of water in Washington, DC, on April 5, 2022

In a ruling this morning, the Supreme Court said state prisoners may not present new evidence in federal court to support a claim that their post-conviction counsel in state court was ineffective in violation of the Constitution, according to CNN. The 6-3 decision will make it harder for inmates across the country to prevail on claims that they received ineffective counsel at the state court level in post-conviction proceedings.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the opinion, stated for such claims to go forward would “cause unnecessary delays,” and he said that federal courts “must afford unwavering respect to the centrality of the trial of a criminal case in state court.”

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From CNN:

“Serial relitigation of final convictions undermines the finality that is essential to both the retributive and deterrent functions of criminal law,” he wrote. In his decision, Thomas emphasized the brutality of the crimes.

He called the “intervention” by federal courts an “affront to the state and its citizens who returned a verdict of guilt” and said that federal courts “years later” lack the “competence and authority to relitigate a state’s criminal case.”

Justice Thomas also said federal courts “years later” lack the “competence and authority to relitigate a state’s criminal case.” The Innocence Project claims nearly 3,000 people have been wrongly convicted of crimes since 1989, and since 1973, 186 people condemned to death have been exonerated. In Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent, she called the decision “perverse” and said that the court had gutted precedent. She wrote that the majority opinion “reduces to rubble” many inmates’ constitutional rights.

“The Sixth Amendment guarantees criminal defendants the right to the effective assistance of counsel at trial,” Sotomayor wrote. “Today, however, the court hamstrings the federal courts’ authority to safeguard that right.”

Usually, an inmate can’t bring new evidence of innocence in federal court when it was the inmate’s fault for not having raised the evidence in state court. However, the Supreme Court has previously said if the failure to submit the evidence was due to ineffective counsel in state court — both trial and appellate — the inmate could raise the issue in federal court.

CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law Steve Vladeck spoke about the significance of this technical ruling is for “state prisoners trying to argue that they haven’t received the effective assistance of counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment.”

“It’s usually difficult, if not impossible, to show that your lawyer was ineffective without introducing new evidence, since that ineffectiveness often turns on evidence that wasn’t introduced,” Vladeck said. “But today’s decision makes it impossible for prisoners to rely upon new evidence to prove that the lawyer representing them in state post-conviction proceedings was ineffective.”

One of the inmates, Barry Jones, argued there was compelling evidence of his innocence for a charge of murder and won relief from the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. His hopes of seeking to be released or retried might all be over with the ruling.