WASHINGTON (CN) - Texas denies most defendants a chance to appeal convictions on the basis of ineffective assistance of trial counsel, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday, spurring a dissent on the new "opaque and malleable" standard.
Carlos Trevino was convicted in 1997 of murdering 15-year-old Linda Salinas.
Investigators found Salinas' body in Espada Park, in San Antonio, Texas, on June 10, 1996, a day after she had gotten into a car with Trevino, his cousin Juan Gonzales and three other friends.
Instead of driving the girl to a fast-food restaurant as they had promised, they took her to the park and three of them sexually assaulted her.
Gonzales testified that Trevino had pressured him to rape Salinas but that he refused and eventually went back to the car. He also testified that he saw Trevino hold Salinas down while one man raped her, that he heard Trevino and the three rapists discuss their desire not to leave any witnesses, and that there was blood on the shirts of Trevino and one of the rapists when they returned to the car.
Salinas had been stabbed in the neck with a knife, and Gonzales said that Trevino had made a comment after the murder that he "learned to use a knife in prison."
Though Gonzales said one of the assailants complimented Trevino on snapping the girl's neck, there was no evidence of such an attack.
After the trial court sentenced Trevino to death, the inmate unsuccessfully applied for habeas relief at the state level, then filed a petition in federal court. He stayed that proceeding, however, to exhaust another option in state court. When that maneuver failed, Trevino stayed his federal habeas proceeding a second time to exhaust another claim in state court.
Since Texas failed for over two years to appoint Trevino a lawyer in connection to the new claim, the federal court lifted the stay and resumed proceedings.
A federal judge denied Trevino's eight claims for federal habeas corpus relief, but it granted the inmate a certificate of appealability (COA) on three of the issues.
Trevino had argued that the court should stay further proceedings until the Supreme Court resolved a pending question about whether ineffective assistance of state habeas counsel in failing to raise a meritorious claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel established cause for a default in state habeas proceedings.
The 5th Circuit refused to stay Mr. Trevino's appeal for this purpose and would not grant COAs on the five claims that the lower court rejected in November 2011.
Four months later, the Supreme Court decided in Martinez v. Ryan that ineffective assistance of state habeas counsel, mirroring that which Trevino has described, could establish cause for the default of a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel.
Scalia penned a furious dissent at the time, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, that rebuked the majority for "a monstrosity" and "a radical alteration of our habeas jurisprudence that will impose considerable economic costs on the states and further impair their ability to provide justice in a timely fashion."
Those justices paired up again Tuesday as their colleagues vacated and remanded the denial of Trevino's petition.
Echoing the 2012 dissent, Scalia said there is no "principled basis" for the majority to address "only the constitutional claims presented in this case, where the state barred the defendant from raising the claims on direct appeal.''
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito joined for a separate dissent that emphasized the narrowness of the Martinez ruling and its inapplicability for Trevino.
The 1991 case Coleman v. Thompson blocks federal habeas relief for a state prisoner who "fails to exhaust state remedies ... [or] has failed to meet the state's procedural requirements for presenting his federal claims," unless he can show "cause" to excuse his default.
Martinez represented a limited qualification to Coleman, according to the Roberts dissent.
"The states had a clear choice, which they could make with full knowledge of the consequences: If a State 'deliberately cho[se] to move trial-ineffectiveness claims outside of the direct-appeal process' through a 'decision to bar defendants from raising' them there, then - and only then - would 'counsel's ineffectiveness in an initial-review collateral proceeding qualif[y] as cause for a procedural default,'" Roberts wrote.
"Today, with hardly a mention of these concerns, the majority throws over the crisp limit we made so explicit just last term. We announced in Martinez that the exception applies 'where the state barred the defendant from raising the claims on direct appeal.' But today, the court takes all the starch out of its rule with an assortment of adjectives, adverbs, and modifying clauses: Martinez's 'narrow exception' now applies whenever the 'state procedural framework, by reason of its design and operation, makes it highly unlikely in a typical case that a defendant will have a meaningful opportunity' to raise his claim on direct appeal."
Roberts slammed the majority for concluding that Trevino's case illustrates the "systemic" working of Texas' procedural framework.
Given that the standard is so opaque and malleable, the majority cannot describe the exception applied here as narrow, and does not do so," he wrote.
The five justices who sided with Trevino on Tuesday described the Texas "procedural regime" as permitting, but not requiring, a "defendant initially to raise a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on direct appeal."
"The structure and design of the Texas system in actual operation, however, make it 'virtually impossible' for an ineffective assistance claim to be presented on direct review," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the majority.
"How could federal law deny defendants the benefit of Martinez solely because of the existence of a theoretically available procedural alternative, namely direct appellate review, that Texas procedures render so difficult, and in the typical case all but impossible, to use successfully, and which Texas courts so strongly discourage defendants from using?" he added.
Emphasizing the similarities to Martinez's conviction in Arizona, Breyer wrote that the "the Texas procedural system - as a matter of its structure, design, and operation - does not offer most defendants a meaningful opportunity to present a claim of ineffective assistance of trial counsel on direct appeal."
"What the Arizona law prohibited by explicit terms, Texas law precludes as a matter of course," he added.
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