By Sophia Barberini
ARIZONA – The state of Arizona is aiming to prevent federal courts from hearing evidence that a trial counsel is ineffective in Shinn v. Ramirez and Jones, a case that observers suggest has the potential to limit the rights of incarcerated individuals and harmfully impact the carceral system.
Shinn v. Ramirez and Jones was filed by the state of Arizona after their Ninth Circuit prevented the execution of two inmates on death row, Barry Jones and David Ramirez, “based on compelling evidence of innocence,” and “intellectual disability” respectively.
This evidence of innocence and intellectual disability emerged after Jones’ and Ramirez’s trials in state court, as they were left with incompetent counsel at the time.
In response to this Ninth Circuit decision, the state of Arizona is asking the Supreme Court to prevent the federal court from hearing evidence that would halt the execution of Jones and Ramirez. This would allow these individuals to be executed prior to any court hearing the evidence.
The Supreme Court will be considering whether or not the federal court can “consider new evidence in support of a claim that [an individual’s] trial counsel was ineffective under the Sixth Amendment,” even if the claim was not made in state court “due to the ineffectiveness of appointed state postconviction counsel.”
Precedent for this case derives from a 2012 Supreme Court decision in Martinez v. Ryan, in which the Court decided “that a federal court may consider the merits of an ineffective trial counsel claim where the failure to raise it in state court was due to the ineffectiveness of postconviction counsel.”
Despite this precedent, the state of Arizona claims that a portion of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 prevents the federal court from considering any evidence to support an individual’s claim of ineffective counsel during state trial, completely contradicting the Martinez decision.
“That would mean that prisoners who have the misfortune of being provided with ineffective counsel at both the trial and state postconviction stage will be effectively blocked from obtaining relief from even the most egregious errors in their convictions and sentences,” said Jones and Ramirez in their response brief filed by Arizona public defenders and the DC law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, LLP.
Further, the state of Arizona’s position would leave Jones and Ramirez on death row, the brief argues.
After Jones was provided an adequate lawyer, he was easily able to provide evidence that unraveled the theory that connected him to a murder, leading to a federal court deciding that his trial and postconviction counsel were incompetent and vacating his conviction. This forces the state of Arizona to either release or retry him, the prisoners noted.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed this decision, but the state of Arizona claimed that the federal court should not have considered the new evidence and that Jones should still be executed. The district court rejected Arizona’s argument.
Despite Ramirez’s apparent intellectual limitations during his trial, his lawyer did not provide any evidence of it, nor did she demonstrate the neglect and abuse he had suffered in the past. The court of appeals ruled that the ineffectiveness of Ramirez’s attorney satisfied the precedent set in Martinez, causing the case to be remanded to district court.
The state of Arizona wants to prevent the district court from hearing any evidence that was not presented during Ramirez’s trial in state court, as they consider whether or not Ramirez had competent legal representation.
In making these arguments, Arizona is claiming that it is the fault of the individuals for not demonstrating the incompetence of their lawyers during their state trials, directly contradicting the precedent set in Martinez.
Jones and Ramirez lawyers said Arizona “seeks to nullify Martinez and leave prisoners like Mr. Jones and Mr. Ramirez with no mechanism to prove their claims,” according to opponents of the state’s appeal, adding that if the Supreme Court were to confirm Arizona’s argument “it would leave prisoners with serious constitutional defects in their convictions – including ineffective trial counsel that utterly failed to investigate the state’s case and discover readily available evidence of innocence.”
If Arizona were to be successful, it will effectively overturn Martinez, a case that, if it were null, would allow Jones and Ramirez to be at risk of execution despite evidence of innocence and intellectual disability.
Further, Jones and Ramirez argue that Arizona’s success in this case “would undermine the integrity and dignity of the federal courts by forcing district courts to willfully blind themselves to compelling evidence of wrongful convictions and unconstitutional sentencing that was properly introduced at an earlier stage.”
The Supreme Court is set to hear Shinn v. Ramirez and Jones on Nov. 1.