The new court’s absurd inhumanity: To preserve procedure, an innocent man must die

There has been a lot of attention paid, rightly, to the leaked opinion showing that the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. But another opinion, both cruel and absurd, issued by the Republican supermajority deserves attention, as well.

That is a decision released last month, Shinn v. Martinez Ramirez, which is likely to result in the execution of an innocent man. For the wrongfully convicted, it sets a precedent that shatters the hope that they can get new evidence of innocence examined by a federal court.

And not because the court has weighed the evidence for and against guilt and come to the conclusion that the man is guilty. (The latest court to review the evidence in the case concluded he probably couldn’t be found guilty of anything.)

The court is pushing to execute him because it says the evidence showing he is innocent should not be considered at all.

The ruling is especially significant for Idaho because it reversed a ruling of the federal Ninth Circuit, the final stop for an Idaho appellant before the U.S. Supreme Court. As Kevin Fixler reported, there’s likely one Idaho case already affected by the ruling.

The Ninth Circuit, guided by prior Supreme Court precedents, stood ready to hold evidentiary hearings in cases where convicts facing the death penalty would be able to introduce evidence that they had been wrongfully convicted because their lawyers failed to investigate the facts of the case or to present important evidence they were innocent during their state appeals.

The 1995 conviction of Barry Jones, an Arizona man convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend’s daughter, was one such case.

Barry Jones

The court’s review of Jones’ case turned up considerable evidence that he had been wrongfully convicted, spent almost three decades wrongfully imprisoned, and was at risk of being wrongfully executed.

The Intercept’s Liliana Segura has investigated Jones’ conviction since 2018. If you want a detailed understanding of the case, her eight-part series is the best place to start.

The prosecution’s original case against Jones was highly circumstantial, based on a mixture of unreliable evidence and faulty forensic analysis.

As Segura documented, most medical examiners today believe the injury which killed 4-year-old Rachel Gray — an intestinal rupture likely caused by a sharp blow to the abdomen — could not have been caused within the time frame when Jones was known to be with her. There is no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Others who knew Jones at the time did not describe any tendencies toward violence.

One of the original jurors Segura interviewed said she would not convict him today, and that the case has haunted her.

The current state of the evidence against Jones is so poor that a federal judge found no judge or jury would likely convict him of any crime — much less the murder that made him eligible for the death penalty. He ordered that Jones either get a fresh trial or be released.

But rather than retrying the case and asking a jury to take a fresh look at all of the evidence, Arizona decided to contend that the federal court never should have examined it in the first place. The way in which the state made this argument is jaw-dropping.

Innocence doesn’t matter

“That no fact finder could have found the prisoner guilty is not enough,” Arizona Solicitor General Brunn Roysden said in his Supreme Court oral argument.

That is, Arizona’s argument was that if the evidence of innocence is so clear that no judge or jury could have found the accused guilty — that’s irrelevant. If Jones’ state appellate lawyer failed to investigate and find this evidence, that’s Jones’ fault, and so all the evidence should simply be ignored.

This is the reasoning the U.S. Supreme Court’s Republican supermajority agreed with last month. They found that this is what Congress intended when it passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, or AEDPA, in 1996. (Given how the Supreme Court has interpreted that act, Idaho’s congressional delegation should push for efforts to reform it, if they have any sense of justice.)

A section of that law indicates that if a person facing the death penalty seeks habeas corpus proceedings in federal court, they must rely on evidence that has previously been presented in state court. But in a prior ruling, a more sane U.S. Supreme Court found that that couldn’t apply when that person was alleging their appointed state appellate counsel was ineffective. Did the courts really expect state appellate lawyers to present evidence of their own ineffectiveness?

The new court answers this question: Yes. And it went out of its way to make this absurdity into precedent.

The court’s cruelty

As Noam Biale of SCOTUSblog pointed out, Arizona’s appeal had a gaping procedural deficiency of its own. Its key argument, that the district court had violated AEDPA, wasn’t raised in district court in one of the underlying cases. The state therefore waived it, and it had no right to raise it in front of either the Ninth Circuit or the U.S. Supreme Court.

But the court decided to exercise its discretion to set that procedural hurdle aside. That is to say, provided with an easy out for a narrow ruling that simply said, “Arizona failed to raise its argument early enough, so the underlying decision stands,” it instead decided to exercise special discretion to hollow out prior rulings protecting the right of habeas corpus, likely executing an innocent man along the way.

“We choose to forgive the State’s forfeiture before the District Court,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote.

But not the fact that Jones’ lawyers didn’t raise evidence showing he is probably innocent. That evidence cannot be heard.

The necessary boxes have been checked, and so it’s time to kill a man.

It is as inhuman as it sounds.