In a direct blow to prisoners who are hoping to get federal courts to hear their innocence, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday voted in favor of Arizona, which argued that federal judges can't determine guilt of people for state crimes — even if there is proof of innocence.
In a 6-3 super-majority ruling, with Justice Clarence Thomas writing the majority’s opinion for the case, Shinn v. Ramirez, he described that the federal courts should only act as a review of state procedures, and whether or not they acted correctly when finding someone guilty. He said the court's lower rulings violated state sovereignty.
Quoting past court decisions, Thomas wrote that ultimately, “it would be unseemly in our dual system of government for a federal district court to upset a state court conviction without [giving] an opportunity to the state courts to correct a constitutional violation.”
The decision is a win for strict constitutionalists who argue the federal courts have broadened their powers too much and stripped away state’s abilities to make meaningful decisions on crime.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office hailed the Supreme Court’s decision: "The wheels of justice take time to turn, but they should not be stuck for decades,” Brnovich said in a released statement. “I applaud the Supreme Court’s decision because it will help refocus society on achieving justice for victims, instead of on endless delays that allow convicted killers to dodge accountability for their heinous crimes."
For the two men in the Supreme Court case, Barry Jones and David Ramirez, the ruling highlights and amplifies the severe limitation Arizona has in place — a single appeal, to be exact — to prove someone’s innocence. And how after today, there is even less opportunity.
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For those convicted of capital murder, their case is automatically appealed to the state Supreme Court. If the court approves the jury’s verdict, prisoners are granted an opportunity to appeal using a process called post-conviction relief.
The process is long and partly to blame for the reason why criminal cases can go on for years, but they are also often where people can gather information, hire new lawyers, and find new evidence to prove if they had ineffective lawyers.
But unlike in other states where there are multiple opportunities to gather evidence and prove innocence during review, Arizona just gives prisoners a single shot to prove their innocence.
Before 2012, defendants who didn't make an argument for poor counsel in their post-conviction appeal didn’t have much chance of getting their cases heard in federal court.
Since legal representation during post-conviction review is not an explicit constitutional right, federal courts only stepped in when states misinterpreted laws or evidence or violated constitutional rights.
But that year, an Arizona man, Luis Martinez, won a Supreme Court case that decided district and circuit courts could review cases if prisoners were able to prove they had an incompetent lawyer, but weren't given another opportunity to argue that in court.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority’s decision, saying that the state’s limitations on “a prisoner’s inability to present an ineffective-assistance claim is of particular concern because the right to effective trial counsel is a bedrock principle in this nation’s justice system.”
Two court justices — Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — dissented. And until now, lawyers viewed the Martinez decision as an opportunity to get a second chance to have evidence presented.
Even though lawyers are not constitutionally guaranteed to people during post-conviction appeals, they're offered to those convicted of capital offenses in Maricopa or Pinal counties. (The two county attorney offices have departments dedicated to providing lawyers specifically for post-conviction relief.)
But those attorneys are, like other public defenders, notoriously underpaid and heavily overworked.
“I got paid $2,000 to do 700 hours of work,” said John Mills, a defense lawyer specializing in capital cases who is also an appointed post-conviction lawyer in Maricopa. “That’s $2 an hour? $5 an hour?”
The low pay and high work load often show up as burnout and negligence, two issues that were highlighted in Jones' and Ramirez' cases. The two argued in different cases that the state provided inadequate counsel during their first trial hearings, as well as their post-conviction relief hearings.
For Ramirez, a jury found him guilty of murdering his girlfriend and her daughter, but according to the federal court record, his state-appointed lawyer did not research or provide evidence that proved mental instability and severely low IQ. His lawyer during post-conviction relief also did not develop evidence of intellectual disability, which could have changed his sentence. (The Supreme Court has ruled on multiple cases — as early as 2019 — that executing people with severe disabilities violates the constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.)
Another jury found Jones guilty of beating his girlfriend’s 4-year old daughter in the abdomen to the point of death. But his lawyers never interviewed witnesses that would have exonerated him at his first trial, nor during his post-conviction appeal. A federal judge conducted his own hearing with new evidence, and found the cause of death was founded on junk science, and the county-appointed defense attorneys were so ill-prepared that he ordered Arizona to release Jones or retry him.
Neither men heard exonerating evidence in their favor until federal public defenders had been assigned to their cases and federal judges had their own evidentiary hearings.
During opening statements in December last year, the state's lawyer said that the federal court violated the law by listening to evidence and then determining — based on that evidence — the outcome of the state's former trials.
They argued that the court should allow the state to execute Jones, because the lower judges’ rulings violated a decades-old anti-terrorism law made by Congress that prohibits state defendants to introduce new evidence during a federal trial, even if that evidence exonerates the accused.
"Martinez's judge-made rule cannot rewrite Congress's statutory mandates," said Beau Roysden, the solicitor general who represented Arizona in the case.
On Monday, the court agreed. Now, both Ramirez and Jones are expected to continue on death row.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor called the majority's decision "perverse" and "illogical." She described Arizona's post-conviction relief process as an "impediment" to people who want to prove their innocence.
And while the decision on Monday was focused on capital punishment sentences, other lawyers say it has broader implications for people in other criminal cases, where the state does not provide a lawyer.
“It's important for death penalty cases, of course, but it's arguably even more important for non-capital cases where the right to post-conviction, and the resources to conduct post-conviction are greatly diminished,” said John Mills, the post-conviction lawyer.
Many prisoners convicted of crimes who want to appeal their cases have to represent themselves or pay thousands of dollars they can’t earn inside to pay lawyers. But without access to the internet, proper law libraries, or even money to pay for phone calls, good representation is left for those who only have the means.
“In these instances, the federal courts would have otherwise been playing a larger role in policing the adequacy of state and post-conviction proceedings,” Mills said. “Instead, the courts have just had one tool taken out of their tool belt in that regard.”
The decision also put many defense and civil rights lawyers in shock. Especially since the December's oral arguments seemed that many conservative justices were leaning to rule against the state.
"We thought we were getting traction," said Robert Loeb, Jones and Ramirez’s attorney. He said, though, that as months went on and more decisions came out by the Supreme Court, he became less hopeful. “The court here in these cases doesn't see the travesty being the person being sentenced to death will never have an effective counsel. Instead, the court sees the travesty being that the death penalty is being slowed down by process.”
Others close to the case say they’re not done fighting, but feel this is a big setback, and there is a very real possibility that the state will push forward to execute both an innocent man as well as a medically disabled man, as it was proven in two federal courts.
“How do you unring that bell?” asked Sylvia Lett, a former federal public defender who now teaches at the University of Arizona Law School.
Lett said she talks to Jones every Friday night, and isn’t looking forward to her conversation with him this week.
“I just don't know what I'm going to say to him this Friday,” she said. “Just, ‘I’m sorry that this system of justice has wronged you, yet again.’”
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Shinn v. Ramirez: Federal judges can't rule on prisoners' innocence